The story of two foragers who subsist, if just barely, by collecting mushrooms from tri-state area woodlands and selling them to NYC restaurants, Now, Forager boasts an evocative sense of environment and the feel of working with one’s hands, but otherwise rummages around in search of substance and subtlety. Lucien (Jason Cortlund) has an expert knowledge of mushrooms, a wandering spirit, and a zealous ethos regarding not “selling out,” a notion that comes to the fore when girlfriend Regina (Tiffany Esteb) decides that wandering through forests for fungi and scrounging around for $3.20 in change for gasoline isn’t a life that provides ample stability, and takes a job as a Manhattan restaurant prep cook. This turns out to be the first of many obstacles crowding the path of these two fringe-dwellers, whose relationship frays when Lucien, in bitter response to Regina’s decision, takes off to the Pine Barrens on a scavenging trip. There, he loses his goods to a couple of machete-wielding Russians and is forced to earn money for his return home by catering a lavish party for the wealthy, pretentious wife (Gabrielle Maisels) of a conservative think tank consultant. It’s a development that leads to an easy-target political critique, and one that, despite the film’s superficial resemblance to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (nomads traversing forests, quiet personal drama, naturalistic cutaways to the environment), feels underlined as if in black crayon.
Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin’s tale mocks its Republican characters with such easy-target jabs that it almost obscures the fact that Lucien is himself an obnoxious, holier-than-thou prick whose uncompromising attitude is the genuine cause of his financial and romantic circumstances. The same generally holds true for Regina, whose own arrogance thwarts a job working at a Rhode Island restaurant where the customers demand their old, diner-esque cuisine, much to the chagrin of Regina, who stubbornly insists on serving more traditional, upscale Basque dishes. Lucien and Regina continually search for direction and maturity, but Cortlund and Esteb’s lack of chemistry sabotages any rooting interest in their finding a way back to each other, or learning something meaningful about themselves. Their characters’ inertness, however, is less a function of performance than of writing, as the script favors obvious exposition that prevents any real rapport to develop, and frequently just feels stilted, especially during montages of mushroom close-ups that feature Lucien narrating the fungi’s names, gastronomic uses, and (shortly after tension builds between Lucien and Regina), potential deadliness. Sequences of hands chopping, slicing, washing and preparing foods far more acutely convey the tangible pleasures of communing with natural elements, but those moments’ modest lyricism is—right up to Now, Forager’s two-line textual coda from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—too often nowhere to be found.