As Year of the Carnivore begins, Samantha "Sammy" Smalls (Cristin Milioti) is having trouble connecting with Eugene (Mark Rendall). They're friends, and both parties are interested in taking things to the next level, but each is saddled with their own set of neuroses that prevent them from getting truly intimate with each other. Following an awkward night of hesitation and inappropriate laughter, Eugene has had enough, telling Sammy to go get some experience as a lover before trying to force their relationship any further. As it turns out, Sammy and the film may have the same problem.
The film's central conflict is Sammy's sexual repression and social anxiety about herself. Sammy is a cancer survivor with a hobbled leg. Despite this, she works at a supermarket as an undercover loss prevention operative, and she lives alone, away from her bickering parents. On the surface, these seem like aggressive, confrontational lifestyle choices, but Sammy remains meek underneath. When she catches an old man trying to smuggle steak under his hat, she dutifully reports him, but when her manager Dirk (Will Sasso) moves to enact his own legal system involving Polaroids and his fists, she breaks and tries to offer to pay for the steak.
When writer/director Sook-Yin Lee focuses on Sammy and the people she awkwardly interacts with, Year of the Carnivore has an understated, comforting wit. In the film's best scenes, the film or the characters sympathize with her plight, like the would-be avocado thief (Don Thompson) who Sammy ends up kidnapping for scientific reasons, or the exhausted couple (Emily Holmes and Patrick Gilmore) who use Sammy as a tool to repair their own marriage. Milioti plays these scenes with a perfect blend of bossiness and uncertainty, infusing the character with personality that too many oddball deer-in-the-headlights protagonists lack. Credit must also go to Ali Liebert as Sammy's co-worker Sylvia, a gorgeous future molecular biologist, and Will Sasso's restrained, deadpan performance.
Unfortunately, the film also wants Eugene to be a character that the audience likes, which is more of a challenge. Since Lee wants her film to be more than ten minutes long, the story contrives to make Eugene to be an asshole at the beginning and arrive at a better place by the end, but none of it has the grace or effectiveness of Sammy's journey. Lee gives Eugene plenty of reasons to be an ass, such as a disappearing, cheating mother and Sammy's own inexperience at being in a relationship, but knowing why Eugene is abrasive and unfriendly doesn't make him seem any less, well, abrasive and unfriendly. There's not enough reason for Sammy to chase Eugene, and not enough to justify how much of the film's time Eugene eats up all on his own.
In another of the film's highlights, Sammy puts on a dress and lipstick for the first time in years and rocks out in her apartment, getting in touch with her playful side. It's a well-written, wonderfully performed scene that doesn't involve anyone but Sammy and her own problems, and it's interrupted, ultimately, by Eugene knocking on the door. Nothing against Mark Rendall, who is perfectly fine in the role, but there's just no reason Sammy's awakening has to involve someone other than Sammy herself.
Seriously, are cartoons the only way designers can think of to promote a quirky indie comedy? Then again, maybe I should just be relieved that they kept it to the back cover rather than slathering it all over the case. Instead, the front cover sort of awkwardly plays up the sexiness of the film, which is sort of at odds with the quote invoking Juno on the back. The package is a plastic-conserving ECO-BOX, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Year of the Carnivore was shot on Super 16, and Maya Entertainment's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is authentically film-like. Thanks to the format, the picture is a bit soft around the edges, but the overall look is very pleasing, boasting rich, saturated colors, inky black levels, and a visible sheen of film grain, without any of the artifacts or noise that usually rear their heads with productions shot on digital. As major studios turn towards high-def and bargain distributors take over, it's nice to see that presentations as good as Year of the Carnivore are still in the cards.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track isn't quite as impressive as the picture, but as far as this dialogue-heavy comedy goes, it gets the job done just fine, and in keeping with the "shot-on-film" cinematography, the ambience feels nice and weighty, free of artificial digital sound effects.
The only extra is a completely run-of-the-mill "Making Of" (12:44) with a cursory blend of B-roll and pleasantries from cast and crew.
Trailers for See You in September, Spooner, and The People I've Slept With play before the main menu. No trailer for Year of the Carnivore is included.
Year of the Carnival looks great on DVD, and has a handful of very funny moments, but the uneven qualities of the film itself and a lacking slate of extras render the film a rental at best.
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