In his emotionally astute debut feature, Donald Cried, Kris Avedisian anatomizes a type of encounter that’s much more common in life than in movies: an awkward reunion between two long-estranged friends that unearths a complex mix of guilt and shame in the one responsible for the estrangement. It would be easy for a filmmaker to either make such an encounter feel tediously uneventful or to pump it full of movie-ish melodrama, but Donald Cried does neither, remaining resolutely realistic while mining plenty of pathos, humor, and drama from the situation.
When Peter (Jesse Wakeman) goes back to the faded industrial Northeastern town where he grew up for the first time in 20 years to settle his recently deceased grandmother’s affairs and finds himself broke and without a ride, he reluctantly turns his former best friend, Donald (Avedisian), an overgrown boy with no boundaries and disarmingly childish fantasies, for help. Way too happy to see Peter after years of trying to find him online, Donald is quick to take advantage of his dependence, driving him everywhere but where he wants to go. Over the 24 or so hours that Donald and Peter spend together, as Peter alternately softens toward and gets infuriated by his old friend and Donald flip-flops between passive-aggressive violence and cringing compliance, the balance of power between the two keeps shifting back and forth, creating a sense of suspense that sometimes tips into dangerous instability, especially when Donald pulls a gun on Peter.
The interactions that Peter witnesses between Donald and people like Donald’s abusive boss and spacily neglectful mother give Peter an understanding of and sympathy for his old friend. They also force him to come to terms with the guilt he feels for his own shabby treatment of Donald. Slowly and haltingly, those closely observed, often cringe-inducing encounters create a hard-earned intimacy between the two men that brings out the best in them both, as they reconnect in improvised-feeling scenes like a visit to an old haunt in the woods, where they trade intermittent confidences between swinging on a vine and lobbing snowballs at each other.
Well-chosen sets and costumes go a long way toward setting the tone, from character-establishing details like Donald’s terrible haircut and cheesy T-shirts to lived-in environments like the fluorescent-lit meeting hall where Peter has a date with Kristen (Louisa Krause), a friend’s hot little sister who he had a crush on all those years ago. In a lesser movie, that setup would have led to a romantic, perhaps even life-altering night, but here it starts comically awkward and then veers off in some unexpected and emotionally charged directions before leading to a final reconciliation between Donald and Peter. Finding the drama and humor in everyday situations like these isn’t easy, but Avedisian makes it look as natural as swinging on a vine.