Charlotte Sometimes, the feature film debut of director Eric Byler, was one of the most impressive movies of 2002. A beautifully realized character study that was as deftly acted as it was written and directed, Charlotte Sometimes hinted at the possible arrival of an incredibly talented filmmaker on the independent landscape. With eager anticipation I have awaited Byler's follow-up, hoping that the raw humanity and attention to character-driven narrative that drove his first film was not a one-time fluke. And with the arrival of Tre, one of two movies he made in 2006, Byler has delivered a worthy companion to his debut dysfunctional human drama.
On paper, Tre sounds like countless other independent films--a quartet of twenty-something friends living together under one roof contemplate their directionless lives while becoming embroiled in a game of sexual politics. But describing Tre that way would be like describing The Wild Bunch as a movie about four old friends grappling with getting old and retirement. It's not so much what Tre is about, as it is about how the film itself executes very true-to-life scenarios, and that's what makes it such an incredible work.
Daniel Cariaga stars as Tre, a silver-spoon slacker proud of his directionless ambivalence, whose quick wit and sharp tongue can be both infuriating and charming, all within the same breath. Kicked out by his latest girlfriend, Tre shows up a drunken mess at the mountain-retreat home of his childhood best friend Gabe (Erik McDowell) and his girlfriend, Kakela (co-writer Kimberly-Rose Wolter), who, like Tre, has led a silver-spoon life. Much to his surprise, Tre discovers that the room he once occupied has been taken over by Nina (Alix Kormzay), a good friend of Kakela, who has recently separated from her husband after catching him kissing another woman. This is where the trouble begins, as Nina, in the eyes of Tre, is an intruder in a world that he feels belongs to him. But this does not stop them from quickly entering in an affair that is doomed from the start. For Nina, it is a chance to explore her desire outside of a marriage that was on shaky ground, but for Tre, it is nothing more than an exercise in wasting time, and the two simply can't reach a level of communication outside of the sack. As Kakela watches the relationship between Tre and Nina with disapproving contempt, she also finds herself questioning the extent of her true commitment to Gabe, who has asked for her hand in marriage. As things fall apart between Nina and Tre, something begins to develop between Tre and Kakela, creating a complicated web of lies and truth that tests the limits of what were once strong relationships.
Though it sounds like a soap opera-ish melodrama, Tre is about as far-removed from the conventional romance dramas of mainstream Hollywood as a film can get. For one thing the film possesses an honesty within its characters that is almost brutal. Tre is difficult to like, even at his best, but there is also something to be said for his unflinching honesty and willingness to deal in the truth, no matter what the consequences. On the flip side, Kakela, who starts out likeable, degenerates into a person so self-absorbed and dishonest with herself and everyone else that she becomes difficult to even look at. Nina and Gabe are for the most part presented as the victims of Tre's uncompromising honesty and Kakela's dishonesty.
The film is built on the solid foundation of a well-written script by Wolter and Byler. Essentially a talking head picture, the script manages to build a sense of character, without relying on heavy exposition to reveal the history of the main players, while still digging deep into their personalities. All four characters define who they are, when it reality it is not a definition so much as it is an aspiration of what they hope to be: Kakela wants to be a writer, Gabe wants to be a husband, Nina wants to be an actress, and Tre aspires to live by a code of ethics that he's crafted in his head after years of having too much time on his hands and no one to really lay down the law with him.
Byler's relaxed style of direction, in tandem with the naturalistic writing style, creates a very comfortable and loose tone with the cast, making for more realistic interaction. Never one to evoke the name John Cassvetes lightly, Byler certainly has studied the acclaimed filmmaker's cinema verite style closely, and has done a remarkable job of incorporating it into his own work. Byler's work also recalls some of the early work of Johns Sayles, whose Return of the Secaucus Seven helped lay the groundwork for the style of filmmaking in Tre.
Not quite as good as Charlotte Sometimes, Tre is still a solidly accomplished film that is as well-made as it is thought-provoking. This is a film that is both emotionally and morally challenging, as it examines the pivotal crossroads where long-time relationships begin to veer down new paths that will forever change the dynamic of those involved. Tre is a film about the weaknesses that lurk beneath the surface, and the strength that are used to keep those biggest flaws hidden. It is about clinging to the love of a person who doesn't love you, just to avoid the pain of being alone. The film is a wonderful culmination of multiple talents unafraid to explore the darker side of relationships.