If anything is clear about the new wave of American independent filmmakers, it is this: They all want to be Martin Scorsese. Movies like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity, and Rob Weiss’s just-released Amongst Friends evince an almost slavish devotion to Scorsese’s hot-wire aesthetic: the whiplash camera moves, the young criminals yelling ”f—” into each other’s faces as a tribal bonding rite, the operatic mating of violent action and rock & roll.
It’s easy to see why Scorsese wields such influence. He’s the best we’ve got, and his raw, kinetic, voluptuously emotional style is like a seductive advertisement for the joys of filmmaking. Still, a director who is finding his chops can become so obsessed with trying to be Scorsese that he forgets to be himself. I think we saw this with last year’s Laws of Gravity, a technically impressive but excruciating-to-sit-through exercise that, with its parade of ranting neighborhood mamelukes, seemed to be unfolding in some bizarre parallel universe (Planet Johnny Boy?). Now, in Amongst Friends, the 26-year-old Weiss has set his young-Jewish-gangster movie amid the not-so-mean streets of his native Long Island, N.Y. Amongst Friends is a disquieting experience; it’s like GoodFellas acted out by the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210. It’s also an enthusiastic but not particularly well-made first film, which leads one to consider the other major new trend in American independent filmmaking: It’s now generating enough hype to rival Hollywood.
Weiss tells the by-now overly familiar story of three aspiring hoods who’ve been pals since childhood. There’s the cautious, sensitive Andy (Steve Parlavecchio); the honorable Trevor (Patrick McGaw), who ends up taking the rap for a drug deal; and the selfish wild child Billy (Joseph Lindsey), who steals Trevor’s girlfriend (Mira Sorvino) while he’s in jail. These three all come under the influence of a grandfatherly crime boss (David Stepkin). The film’s one novelty is that its setting — Long Island’s serenely middle-class Five Towns district — doesn’t seem at all criminal. The characters’ restless nihilism is, more than anything, an extension of their adolescent rebelliousness.
Weiss has talent — the picture is confidently shot — but his showy characters never sear themselves into your imagination. Beneath their pretty-boy preening, this trio lacks soul, quirkiness, dimension. And Weiss’s plotting is ragtag at best; much of the film’s gritty style is simply a matter of the director failing to smooth the edges of his own clichés. Yet Amongst Friends was the hot ticket at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it has been embraced by many critics. Could it be that people are now so eager to find the Next Big Thing that they can’t resist trying to create it? C+