Dances with Films Review: Fools, by Rita Cannon
Benjamin Meyer’s feature debut Fools is a deeply felt, delicate little portrait of two very troubled people who should absolutely be in therapy, but instead choose to weave their discrete threads of dysfunction into a weird tapestry of lies and denial. It has a profound level of sympathy for its characters that’s mostly admirable, even it occasionally strains credulity and lapses into cutesy inconsequence; but even the script’s weakest moments are buoyed by two excellent lead performances.
Michael Szeles plays Sam, a lonely guy who’s just been fired for the umpteenth time, this time from a job at an insurance company where his boss was a former boyfriend of his mother’s. Mary Cross plays Susan, a quiet woman who sells makeup for a living and is always being pushed around by her insensitive roommate. One day, Sam and Susan happen to brush hands on a crowded train. They make some awkward but highly charged eye contact, and when Sam gets off at the same stop as Susan, she nonverbally encourages him to follow her home. He does, but stops short of going inside. The next day, they run into each other again, and this time Susan follows Sam home again, without exchanging a word, and without going inside his home.
This incredibly weird meetcute is sold largely by Szeles and Cross, who are both tremendously charismatic. Cross in particular has the kind of open face and hyperexpressive features that bring to mind a silent film actress like Lillian Gish. When Susan’s roommate abruptly kicks her out of the apartment, she shows up on Sam’s doorstep with all her stuff and asks to move in. Sam not only allows her to stay, but plays along when she starts reminiscing about their completely fabricated romantic past. As the days pass, they continue living together and referencing their madeup memories. Soon they’re sharing their own personal histories with each other and weaving those into the story of their relationship, as if playing the world’s longest, saddest improv game.
Fools puts its main characters in an odd position. Meyer drops Sam and Susan into a selfconsciously quirky indie plot, but instead of the classic manic pixie girl/sadsack guy pairing, Sam and Susan are both sadsacks who need cheering up, and they’re both the wacky weirdos doing the cheering. They’re also very much coprotagonists; we don’t see more from character’s perspective than the other. This becomes a doubleedged sword as the plots ticks along. It’s difficult to guess at any given time who’s lying to who, which gives their initial scenes together an extra charge of suspense; it’s such a thoroughly bizarre situation that it seems literally anything could happen between them. Meyer doesn’t always make the best use of this atmosphere, occasionally veering into the predictably twee (a running gag in which Sam plays the guitar and sings to Susan as different silly characters wears thin pretty fast). But it also makes for a compelling central relationship. It’s easy to see what they each get out of the situation in the short term: companionship, a chance to be listened to, and the opportunity to paper over what they don’t like about themselves and their lives. But soon more complicated questions start to emerge: What’s the significance of the particular lies they’re telling? And how long are they going to do this?
Soon Sam and Susan are meeting each other’s families, which is unsurprisingly disastrous, and dredges up a lot of dark psychological weirdness on both sides, not all of which the film seems willing to commit to. We learn some things about Sam and Susan that frankly make it difficult to root for them as a couple, but that seems to be what Meyer wants us to do right up until the end. Szeles and Cross’ magnetism convinces us to buy a lot of what Fools is selling, but by its last act, the film has some cracks in it that not even winning performances can cover up.