A would-be variation on Before Sunrise, relocated from the wonderland of Vienna to the barren streets, dingy bars, and house parties of Minneapolis, Brady Kiernan’s Stuck Between Stations has sweetness to it, but it’s a sweetness borrowed from innumerable other films and constantly corrupted by biased politics and crass emotional digressions. Beginning with a chance reunion between erstwhile high school classmates Casper (Sam Rosen) and Rebecca (Zoe Lister-Jones) in the aftermath of a bar fight, Kiernan’s film almost immediately degrades itself by making a reference to Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, which supposedly shares the thematic conceit of two people from different worlds finding each other despite their political and socioeconomic differences.
Such a point is made aesthetically early on when Kiernan splits the screen to take in both the city and the not-so-witty repartee between Casper and Rebecca. As the film goes on, the same aesthetic takes in two views of the same action and, later on, the two figures in their own close-ups. It’s a serviceable trick, but also redundant, as it becomes clear about a quarter into the film that Rebecca’s tumultuous affair with her married academic advisor (Michael Imperioli) and Casper’s career with the U.S. Army doesn’t necessarily coincide on paper. But wouldn’t you know, they get along like gangbusters and spend the entire night taking puffs of weed, eating microwave burritos, burglarizing the wife of Rebecca’s ex, and reminiscing about days gone by as they attempt to ignore the blatant sexual tension.
The fact that Casper is a soldier is made clear in the first shot of the film, as he arrives at his father’s home in uniform and quickly changes into a bright blue hoodie and jeans. And yet the script, co-written by Rosen and Nat Bennett, teases this fact until Rebecca is let in on the secret by Casper’s unemployed, radically leftist friend, played by Josh Hartnett. Kiernan’s direction is competent, if unerringly rote, but the script is so completely unoriginal, so blithely expositional that the low bar of pleasance is clearly averted. Ignoring the fact that the script’s only interesting character is a devoted, good-natured soldier, and that every liberal or intellectual character (including Rebecca) is obnoxious, unlikable, immoral, and ungrateful, the film’s tedious crawl yields a completely predictable outcome, not helped by a woozy score by Grant Cutler that’s the polar opposite of the triumphant Hold Steady tune that gives the film its name.
Despite this, one can glean where an enjoyable romance might have bloomed in the moments where Rosen and Lister-Jones talk about their high school days. Rebecca and Casper have essentially never grown up and there’s a palpable energy felt when Casper attempts to dust off Rebecca’s hazy memory, distinctly when he speaks about trying to slip her his number in class one day. Rather than bring this pervasive idea to a head in the end, however, the director and writers decide to conclude the film with a set of campfire confessions that skirt offense in their utterly unremarkable, manipulative grimness. By the time this elliptical story makes its way back around, whatever good vibes that its two leads have shared has been overshadowed by a series of half-cocked attempts to make Stuck Between Stations “matter.”