Initially annoying, ultimately endearing, Etienne! hits enough of the right notes to overcome its half-baked brand of indie sentimentality. This tale of a cancer-stricken hamster and its dedicated owner can’t quite muster the ambition of Kelly Reichardt’s recent Wendy and Lucy (to which it bears a passing resemblance), but as a production of clearly limited resources, Jeff Mizushima’s film is wise to play things modestly and find poetry in imperfection—the randomness of life, as one character might describe it. Its ramshackle approach seems unprofessional but ultimately instills the story with a genuinely lived-in resonance, even on a purely technical level (the print scratches and unclean cuts seen throughout are a savory throwback to pre-digital moviegoing).
Like many of its kind, Etienne!’s script wants for a little less in the self-consciousness department, but unlike most, the filmmaking here displays a learned flair for forgotten basics like letting a scene breath or natural editing that cuts on fluid action. Richard’s (Richard Vallejos) hamster—nay, best friend—has been sick and may not have another chance at pain-free life. Anticipating having to perform euthanasia on the adorable critter, Richard calls off work and uses his limited resources to show the pet, Etienne, the world he’s never seen, biking from place to place in search of natural wonders. On the page, the scenario screams of cheese, but on screen it mostly avoids that pitfall, largely thanks to Vallejos’s ability to suggest someone aggressively tuned into the natural world (Megan Harvey’s more showy turn, in a part that acts as yang to Richard’s yin, stands out with equal assurance).
Reichardt’s aforementioned gem repeatedly finds truths about the modern human condition through its story of an identity-deprived drifter who loses her dog; on a smaller scale, Etienne! attempts the same with modest (and honest) results. The impulsively rendered ebb and flow of the narrative helps. What first appears to be a schematic plot soon shifts into something refreshingly off-kilter, while a handful of exquisite editing choices (a tender goodbye overlaps with newfound friendships developing earlier in the day; Etienne adorably jumps on his hind legs, etc.) elevate the whole with unspoken ease. Be sure to remain for the post-end credits final shot, in which a certain truth emerges with beautiful, quotidian perfection.