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July 22, 2016

Indie movies are awash with coming-of-age stories featuring whiny young white guys going through pretty much the same teen angst, usually over a girl. It’s a natural result mixing “write what you know” with the fairly uniform demographics of indie filmmakers, so I don’t want to unfairly slam every movie that comes out just because the general outlines are so familiar. Besides, I might have sympathized with this sort of story at one point in my life. Heck, I probably lived one, minus the convenience of a screenwriter orchestrating things for me.

The key, then, is to look for how a filmmaker uses this same old boy-has-feels story to say something worthwhile or insightful about the human condition. In the case of Quitters, it quickly seems that the deepest insight this script has to offer was “rich white people are terrible.” But as time ones on it becomes less than clear whether or not the script has even quite realized that much yet.

The head whiny-white-boy in Quitters is Clark (Ben Konigsberg), and while I don’t want in any way to insinuate that he is a direct projection of writer/director Noah Pritzker, the film is drawn from Pritzker’s experiences growing up in the wealthy Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Clark is, as I said, terrible, which is probably the result of growing up around other terrible people. His mother (Mira Sorvino) has a breakdown from the overprescribed bennies she’s been taking, and his father (Greg Germann, who has made a career out of portraying terrible men) sticks her in a resort rehab to detox in secrecy.

Clark is, among other things, a Nice Guy, which means that he’s friends with a girl — Etta (Kara Hayward) — mostly with the aim of having sex with her, and he gets angrily frustrated when she makes it clear she’s not interested. As it turns out, Etta is also terrible, though not for not wanting to sleep with Clark; that’s a perfectly well-founded decision on her part. She displays a number of self-destructive behaviors, but most notably she cheats at school, expects no consequences when caught, and then throws herself at the teacher, Mr. Becker (Kieran Culkin).

It should come as no surprise by now that Mr. Becker is also terrible. He’s exactly the sort of washed-up wannabe writer we always see as the English teacher in these indie movie private schools. He doesn’t exactly fight off the advances of the student whose use of liquid eyeliner is indie movie code for slutty, either. On the other hand, there’s something creepy about a script that positions the victim of a statutory rape as the aggressor, as if the lame “hey, she came on to me!” defense were at all reasonable or exculpatory.

But that’s all a side-plot; the real story is about Clark meeting another girl right after giving up on Etta in the most self-important way possible. Natalia (Morgan Turner) is on Etta’s volleyball team, but beyond that she has the most important quality in a love object for the lead of one of these sort of movies: she exists. She’s even willing to put up with his crap for a while, and somehow convinces her parents (Saffron Burrows and Scott Lawrence) to do the same. Having already cut off contact with his mother during her rehab, Clark does the same with his father by moving into Natalia’s home until even she can’t take it anymore. Natalia, it should be said in all fairness, is not terrible. Neither are her parents, although they do seem weirdly permissive. Beyond that I’m not sure what I could tell you about her. She’s just there until she isn’t.

Clark careens through this landscape of privilege with barely a flicker of self-awareness. It’s possible that Pritzker and co-writer Ben Tarnoff mean this all to be somehow an incisive critique of this enclave of terrible people, but if that’s the case they never really bring that point home in any meaningful way.

Quitters seems, if anything, amused by Clark’s foibles, and sympathetic about his tribulations. It styles itself after Todd Solondz, but shows nothing remotely like his bite. Billed as a “dark comedy”, it confuses self-important myopia for darkness, and the subsequent failures for humor.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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