Possibly the smartest move by Kyle Smith, writer and director of Turkey Bowl, a comedy with a great ear for dialogue and a cast strong enough to make you wonder how much of it was improvised, was making its annual football game between old friends two-hand touch instead of tackle. Touch football implies a certain level of sensitivity both in the toucher and the touched, so while having his characters tackle would’ve given Smith an easy route to tension, conflict, and blowups, touch better represents the personalities of these affectionately realized people as well as the connections and issues between them.
The bonds holding the eight friends together are starting to deteriorate; they meet up yearly to keep in touch (so to speak), but slowly disconnect outside of the game, and each character displays a certain level of sensitivity to this. Jon (Jon Schmidt) seems to acknowledge this a little more than the others because he’s the Turkey Bowl commissioner (“Okay, you send out the emails,” he says to someone questioning a specific game rule), while Kerry (Kerry Bishé) is apparently oblivious to it, thanks mostly to her ability to quickly make new friends, such as Troy (Troy Buchanan) and Sergio (Sergio Villarreal), two buff, intimidating guys (and the group’s only non-whites) that she invites to join the game.
The inclusion of these outsiders marks another savvy move by Smith. The characters’ unfamiliarity with the group provides a convenient but believable reason for some of the group dynamics to be explicitly explained, but more so their sometimes clashing personalities expose the sensitivities of the other group members; heck, the very presence of outsiders touches a nerve with a few of the friends in the Turkey Bowl. That’s not to imply that the two new guys aren’t characters as realized as the others in the film. Sergio (a bit cocky and very competitive, but aware of how he may rub people) and Troy (more guarded than Sergio, and not quite the athlete that the group expected from a fit young black man) get their own moments of insight and even surprise us in some of the qualities and insecurities they reveal.
Because this group is so large, its mix of old college buddies and new friends is a bit more believable than a smaller group most likely would have been (I reckon fewer characters in a comedy like this might force the filmmakers to be more extreme with their personalities). Besides Bob (Bob Turton), the hyperactive, immensely competitive Monster Energy Drink connoisseur, these characters talk, joke, insult, and apologize like people you probably know, and it prevents the film from falling into too many forced conflicts, like when Zeke (Zeke Hawkins) accidentally snubs an introductory handshake from Troy. Smith shows us Troy’s reaction and we’re conditioned to anticipate a confrontation in the future, but just a few moments later, when Troy picks Zeke for his team, Zeke extinguishes the situation as a real person might, apologizing with, “Hey man, I didn’t mean to be a dick before,” rather than letting any possible ill feelings fester.
Turkey Bowl does have somewhat of a hook beyond its already appealing basic premise: everything in the film happens in real-time. (Well, almost everything. A lone slow-motion sequence breaks the illusion.) This seems like an unnecessary and irrelevant gimmick until you watch the film and begin to realize how clever and important it actually is. By showing everything that happens from the time people start arriving at the field until they all finally leave, Smith wants us to know that nothing is irrelevant in how these friends and strangers interact. Every huddle, every play, every touch in this game speaks volumes. Because Smith’s audience becomes sensitive to this, and because the film gives a sense of completion as it encompasses an event from start to finish, the real-time storytelling device feels like it stretches Turkey Bowl’s almost shocking 64-minute runtime, preventing this pleasure of a film that really doesn’t need to be any longer from feeling like it’s too short.
Turkey Bowl played on March 12 as part of this year’s SWSW.