A Better Place (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Unlike many people who love films and write about them, I'm not enamored of low-budget independent films. Once in a while, a good one comes along, like Clerks, or Fucking Amal, or one of Tuna's faves, Where Angels Dance. But 90% of the ones that I see are pure shite. And I generally only see that ones that people recommend, so I can only imagine how bad the other ones are.

But there are always those few exceptions that make us sit up and take notice. A Better Place was made for only $40,000, basically financed by the director/actor Kevin Smith, whose own "Clerks" is one of the most popular low-budget indies of all time. The director of A Better Place, Vincent Pereira, is a part of the View Askew team, and has worked both sides of the camera in earlier Kevin Smith movies, but don't expect this to be Mallrats. The film has some wit, and plenty of intelligence, but it is a very serious film about the gradually escalating problems of some high school outsiders.

Skinny, serious Barrett is the new kid in a New Jersey high school, and he experiences the first day of school from hell when he is accused of sexual harassment, bullied by the jocks, and treated rudely by everyone. This comes to a climax when one of the jocks tries to kick his ass in the locker room after gym class. He is rescued from a beating by an unlikely savior, Ryan, a surly, antisocial kid who not only kicks the jock's ass, but goes much farther than he has to, deliberately inflicting pain and humiliation after the other guy has obviously lost.

This jump-starts a relationship between Barrett and Ryan which turns out to have disastrous consequences for both of them when the jocks and Ryan get into an ever-escalating war of retribution, and Barrett gets caught in the middle, trapped between loyalty to his new friend and an ever growing realization that his friend is psychotic and uncontrollable.

Since the story is basically told through the eyes of everyman Barrett, it packs a lot of emotional involvement. The filmmaker plays fast and loose with our emotions from the very beginning when we find ourselves rooting for Ryan to kick the jock's ass, just as we might root for Rocky Balboa. After all, the jock had been nothing but an unyielding bully to Barrett, and Ryan only seemed to be representing the force of true karmic justice. By imbuing us with Barrett's sense of loyalty, and of wanting to find the good in Ryan, and then by showing us the tragic circumstances that created Ryan's anti-social attitudes, the filmmaker forces us to take Barrett's attitude. We want to like Ryan. We want to save him from himself, and find the good in him.


 I thought the actual circumstances of Ryan's family situation were excessively melodramatic, but in fairness to the writer, the sheer depth of the tragedy is a reasonable explanation for Ryan's irredeemably sociopathic behavior. Perhaps a lesser tragedy and more "normal" circumstances could not produce the monster that we know he is, the beast lurking not far beneath his surface.

In addition, the script makes Ryan a very special person. The fact that he is an outsider doesn't automatically mean that he is without talents, like the hopeless wimp outsiders pictured in so many movies. Ryan is probably also the best educated guy and the toughest guy in the school. As he points out to Barrett, he hates people, so he spends every minute of his discretionary time "either reading or working out". When he isn't kicking the quarterback's ass, he's quoting Sartre. He's the guy all of us know who really has so much potential destroyed by a bad attitude.

And his attitude is really bad. He thinks that forced sterilization and mass-murder are sensible solutions to the mess mankind has made of the planet.

And poor ol' Barrett just can't figure out how to deal with his new friend. He tries inviting him over to hang with "normal" people, but Ryan shows contempt for everyone else and disdains company. He tries walking away from their friendship. He tries helping his friend with love and kindness. He tries everything he knows, but just keeps getting sucked deeper and deeper into something that he can't control. Ryan is a time-bomb waiting to explode, and Barrett can see that the explosion is likely to be triggered soon because of the enemies Ryan has made in the past.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed. Some scenes are 1.5, others 1.66.

  • full-length director commentary

  • a dozen deleted scenes

  • introduction by the producers 

  • although this is a tragic movie, the liner notes are hilarious (and lengthy)

  • although homemade, this is a good DVD. It makes up in sincerity and thoroughness what it lacks in polish

This is absolutely a film worth seeing. It has some technical problems, and some of the minor roles are apparently played by non-actors or amateurs, but the major casting is good, the editing is surprisingly smooth, and most of the film looks good. The writing is excellent. Not only is the story completely involving, but you are able to see that the characters are not cartoons, you can recognize people and situations familiar to you, and you can see how the situation could have gotten so far out of control. I also liked the way they chose to end the movie. 

This director has some real talent. He must, in order to overcome my normal skepticism about low-budget indies. I recommend it.

NOTE: Kevin Smith does a lengthy introduction to this film. I had mixed feelings about it. Smith is witty and informative, and his presence probably lends some financial value related to name-recognition. Unfortunately, his glibness seems to give the wrong impression, or maybe I should say it sets the wrong mood for the film itself. I suggest you watch the film cold, without the silly intro. That will place you in a more appropriate frame of mind. Then watch the deleted scenes if you care to, then listen to the commentary if you're still fascinated (as I was). 

Only after you have made up your mind about the project should you view Kevin's comments, which can then be appreciated for their wit and candor, without spoiling the quasi-tragic mood of the film. 

The Critics Vote

  • no major reviews

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 5.0, which may fairly indicate the technical quality of the film, but  underestimates the its script and its emotional power.
  • With their dollars ... I don't think it's ever been seen any place besides film festivals.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. The storyline doesn't have the kind of mass appeal that you'd expect in a crossover financial smash, and it does have some amateurish moments, but it is one of the best micro-budget indies in history, and one of the best indies of any kind. It could reasonably be compared to the early works of George Romero or Kevin Smith or anyone else who has successfully produced a good film with no resources.

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