It's always pleasant when a storied character actor is finally given the opportunity to shine in a leading role. There's the hope that the same magnetism that separates them from the pack in a supporting capacity will be enough to carry an entire film. Not every bit player can withstand the scrutiny of increased screen time, but that can't be said for Andre Royo—best known for bringing Bubbles from "The Wire" to life. In Joshua Locy's directorial debut, "Hunter Gatherer," Royo crafts one of the finest performances you're likely to see in film this year.
He stars as Ashley, a man who's just come home from what we assume was a prison stint. Ashley just wants to pick up where he left off and reconnect with his on-again, off-again flame Linda, who has moved on with her life and is dating a garbage man. Without anything resembling a plan, he devotes himself to winning her back. While trying to sell a ladder he's taken from his mother's house, Ashley befriends Jeremy (George Sample III), a young man who scavenges mechanical parts for his comatose grandfather's antiquated respirator.
It's this curious-but-endearing friendship that powers the film, as Ashley and Jeremy, each dutifully bound to their respective quixotic quests, find their lives inexorably tied. Jeremy's aunt Nat (Kellee Stewart), a sex worker, begins a casual placeholder romance with Ashley, knowing he's still holding out for Linda. Ashley, with no real connections to anyone save his mother, makes a confidant of Jeremy, at first out of sheer necessity—mostly, for wheels and extra hands—but gradually because of their subtle kinship. The two start a makeshift business retrieving used refrigerators from homes and dumping them for a fee. It seems the sort of quirky side hustle you would expect to find at the center of an indie flick, but these hollowed-out machines loom so ominously that they begin to feel like broken totems of domesticity
Both men are fundamentally optimists but there's a self-defeating toxicity poisoning them from the inside. It's implied that Ashley must have read "The Secret" in his time away as he repeatedly invokes the power of positivity like a hallowed mantra. Jeremy has a naivete about him, evidenced in a medical test during which his body is covered in an increasing amount of medicinal patches. Neither can fathom the obstacles in their path and instead they try and enact change through sheer force of will. They struggle with their stations in life and with reality itself. At times, their environment and the inescapable truth of their situations feel like heavy chains.
Locy lenses his tale here with a peculiar sense of time and place. It feels like our own world a step or two removed, filtered through some tragicomic limerick. This world has grit, but it's not woeful. There's genuinely hilarious dialogue ("For your information, my mother gave me this ladder"), but the comedic relief here always comes from a place of subdued sincerity. There's little touches reminiscent of Michel Gondry's child-like creativity (namely Jeremy's patchwork respirator) and the distinct sense that Locy is dramatizing more intense real-life issues by abstracting them. The real person Locy based Ashley on struggled with addiction, but in the film, drugs are not a focal point. Locy chooses instead to explore the emotional underpinning of self-destructive tendencies.
"Hunter Gatherer's" got heart and character, but it functions best as a showcase for Royo's considerable gifts as an actor. His turn as Ashley imbues him with such vulnerable charm that you don't want to turn away, no matter how many questionable decisions he makes. This is a man who presents a near manic level of enthusiasm for the world around him. There's palpable glee as he dips his feet into a pool or fiddles with the radio knobs of a new acquaintance's car, like he legitimately missed the world when he was taken away from it. An adult with a child's level of public education, Ashley tries to learn cursive to win Linda back in love letter form. Royo creates this tense contrast between the brave face Ashley puts on for the world and the slackened visage left under the strain in moments of solitude. This is a man whose personal choice for attempted suicide is to dig a hole in his mother's backyard, place his head in it, and light sticks of dynamite inches from his cheek.
Ultimately, "Hunter Gatherer" is a tragedy about people settling and the world passing dreamers by. There's a tender scene between Ashley and Nat where she's telling him that she's going to marry the motel manager she's been fooling around with solely for the security. She's a pragmatist and is resigned to this being the best possible scenario for her, but Ashley can't relate. He refuses to accept that he's burned every chance with Linda, just the way Jeremy can't cope with the thought of never hearing his grandfather's voice again.
The cycle of the blind self-delusion is its own prison, but the beauty here is the time these two men share as cell mates.
"Hunter Gatherer" is the closing film at the Maryland Film Fest and screens May 8 at 7:15 p.m. at the MICA Brown Center.