Every year, American cinema produces any number of films featuring people who find themselves approaching their 30th, or 35th, or 40th birthday wondering what the hell is next. These stories of arrested development seem to most prominently concern two types of protagonists these days: the meant-to-be lovable boorish slobs who can be found in the traditional Will Ferrell or Judd Apatow film and the cruel, pseudo-intellectuals who populate mumblecore or Noah Baumbach films.
Phillip the Fossil is, refreshingly, concerned with a different kind of late-bloomer. Phillip (Brian Hasenfus) is an aimless landscaper, pushing 30 (though he looks older, and it’s implied that he’s lying about his age), who spends most of his time drinking beer, snorting coke, and sleeping with teenage girls. The teenage guys, of course, resent him, seeing Phillip—mostly correctly—as a loser leeching off of their lifestyle, while the locals his age or older see him mostly as the kind of macho, self-delusional misfit who seems to haunt every sleepy, boring American small town.
The film isn’t very good for reasons common to a low-budget work early in a director’s career. Filmmaker Garth Donovan dresses Phillip the Fossil up with intentionally amateurish camera tricks that are probably meant to call attention to the film’s authenticity, but only reaffirm an inexperienced director’s insecurity. Filters occasionally change mid-scene, while the camera wiggles and wobbles all over the actors’ faces with indifference to such cinematic niceties as the 180-degree rule. The writing is strained and obvious, while the acting, with the exception of Hasenfus’s Phillip, is generally nonexistent.
Yet Donovan occasionally shows understanding of his subject. The film is set somewhere in Massachusetts, and it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t see small-town working-class people as readymade jokes. Donovan occasionally captures how emotionally stymied young people cuss and drink and how they casually, unintentionally reveal themselves through their feigned seen-it-all bad-boy or bad-girl pretenses. A few of the party scenes, which mostly consist of characters getting loaded and listlessly hanging out in the back of a truck or a porch, have a casual hopelessness that’s sad and somewhat funny. Donovan doesn’t force a few of these moments, and an ambiguous, knowing portrait of lost people occasionally threatens to emerge from the junkyard of show-off stereotypes. American cinema is sorely lacking stories of the small-town middle-to-lower working class that aren’t mired in condescending art or pop-film clichés, so here’s hoping that Donovan learns from his mistakes.