Hard Surfaces is pretty thin. Sometimes it’s translucently thin. The film itself never has any depth, but fairly regularly the actors at least show they could give it some depth, if it weren’t for the thinness. Ostensibly the film’s well-meaning, but that quality comes off as fake. Like writer (and director) Brown is using trying to leverage melodramatic tropes to tell his story, which even he doesn’t care very much about because it’s impossible to care very much about successful cokehead Winston-Salem, North Carolina photographer Shawn Pyfrom (who also produced). He’s such a big hit, he goes to red carpet openings—which later makes no sense when you find out he’s been living a lie in Winston-Salem for years. Surfaces exists in a world without much of an Internet. It’s not even clear the cellphones can text. Pyfrom is dating professional mean girl Julia Voth (who also produced); actually she’s a prosumer mean girl; Voth not being some kind of YouTube influencer is one of Surfaces many misses. She couldn’t be a YouTube influencer, however, and not just because the Internet doesn’t exist, but because Voth’s character isn’t allowed that level of depth. She’s just the bitchy, sex-crazed harpy who seduces Pyfrom whenever there’s a pause in dialogue. Because Pyfrom doesn’t want kids, so all Voth can give him is sex. And enable his cocaine and prescription pill addiction.
Pyfrom’s hit photographs are all of people on drugs. His studio is in his apartment and even though these subjects sometimes make Pyfrom uncomfortable (Sterling Hurst in the film’s only thing approaching a standout performance), he doesn’t worry about it ever coming back on him. His buddy—and the guy who sells pictures—Chase Fein hires the subjects. So they’re paying people to get dangerous high and then Pyfrom takes pictures of them drooling, then Fein sells them. Fein, we later find out, is all about his AA-fueled sobriety. Fein knows drugs are bad, he just doesn’t care about them being bad for other people. He’s even got an overdose story at one point. He’s also a… hipster? I mean, he walks around barefoot all the time, mostly wears long-sleeve shirts and shorts, eats in front of people at a place of business and talks with his mouth full, and does yoga on his desk. Given Brown doesn’t appear to direct his actors at all, it’s impressive how much Fein’s able to get away with when the script and direction aren’t ever there to back him up.
But then Pyfrom’s past catches up to him; his sister and her wife die in a tragic boating accident off Catalina. Because where else does anyone die except in tragic boating accidents except off Catalina. They’ve left him their daughter, who—before they kicked him out of the state and he left in tears, they all promised he’d care for if they ever died. There’s some twenty-first century “not that there’s anything wrong with it” from the two female characters in the film, bitchy girlfriend Voth (who needs to have a kid to validate her existence we later find out) and virginally wonderful social worker Sophie Kargman. Voth can get away with her surprise at lesbians existing because she’s supposed to be playing shallow, but Kargman’s awkward delivery of “partner” instead of wife in a legal setting? It’s a creative decision on someone’s part and a dumb one.
There are a lot of dumb creative decisions in the film, but they’re mostly Brown’s script. It’s not like Pyfrom ever screws up a scene. Quite the opposite. He’s perfectly fine doing this movie all about how sad it is this thirty-something white guy has to take a measure of responsibility–basically, it’s about him realizing it’s not a good idea to get high around tween ward Hannah Victoria Stock. Stock ought to give the movie’s best performance, but she doesn’t because Brown’s so bad at directing her scenes. It’s like they used the worst take in every scene, then cut it wrong. But it’s not like Pyfrom has any arc with Stock. Or, more, the other way around. See, once Stock is introduced and starts eating instead of being locked away in her room while Pyfrom day drinks (it’s okay though, thanks to the coke, he never gets drunk; it’s established in the first scene because the script is all about priorities), she pretty much disappears. Fein becomes her babysitter while Pyfrom and Kargman have this awful courtship then disappointment once someone (psst, it’s Voth) calls into social services he’s a drunken cokehead who probably shouldn’t be caring for a tween.
However, since Pyfrom never has any problems other than, you know, passing out on his counter, and never actually does anything with Stock except maybe feed her and drop her off at Fein’s gallery… it’s hard to see a problem. But then you realize it’s because Brown is manipulating everything to make Pyfrom a victim, even when Fein’s accusing him of playing victim, there’s another layer to make Pyfrom the victim. Because we don’t have all the details. Sure, he lied to pal and business partner Fein and live-in girlfriend Voth about his past and they never found out not just because there’s no Internet but because it turns out the local newspaper, which apparently does multiple stories about Pyfrom’s photography, never did some basic checking into his identity. It’s not like he had his name legally changed, so Voth never looked at the water bill either.
The suspension of disbelief Surfaces requires, not just for plot points but for characters and the ground situation itself… it needs to bring something more than the acceptable acting of a typo-free but insipid screenplay. And whatever screenwriting book Brown read to help with the third act needs to be burned; it’s reveal after gimmick after reveal after gimmick after reveal.
If Brown had some personality as a director, there might be something to Hard Surfaces. If Voth and Kargman had switched roles—Voth implies depth, Kargman never does—it’d be something. If Brown knew how to direct his actors, it’d be something. If Noel Maitland’s photography weren’t so perfectly competent, it’d be something. Hard Surfaces is the kind of thing where the only thing it can’t be is vapid and Brown brings nothing to it but vapid. The way he avoids the female characters is astounding. Like, Stock ought to be the main character. Instead, she gets less to do than anyone else. It’s also weird the sister left him her kid but none of the kid’s possessions.
Pyfrom’s okay. It’s actually surprising how well he maintains that okay throughout the film. Stock’s likable, but should be good. She also doesn’t get to grieve because she’s not given that much character. Voth. Voth could be the film’s secret weapon, instead she’s just as much a drag on it as Kargman. And Kargman’s a drag.
But, hey, Fein’s good in a crap role and that Hurst guy is awesome.
Hard Surfaces has some decent, if insincere, performances, but nothing else. Except director Brown in a bit part where the gag is he stutters.
Wait, wait, I forgot—the Panavision aspect ratio for the DV. Really, really, really, really, really bad idea.
Written and directed by Zach Brown; director of photography, Noel Maitland; edited by Patrick Bellanger; music by Ryan Rapsys; production designer, Kristen Adams and Jayme Helms; produced by Julia Voth, Shawn Pyfrom, and Brown; released by North of Two.
Starring Shawn Pyfrom (Adrian), Chase Fein (Steve), Hannah Victoria Stock (Maddy), Sophie Kargman (Sophie), Julia Voth (Liz), and Sterling Hurst (Dale).