Sundance 2020: The Climb, by David Bax
Movies where the structure is the hook tend to make me nervous. Your mileage may vary, of course; the popularity of Christopher Nolan movies like Memento and Inception escapes me but I found Dunkirk to be elegant and stirring. Michael Angelo Covino’s The Climb, though, starts so leisurely—and then delivers a such a quick sock in the mouth—that its somewhat gimmicky formatting only gradually becomes apparent. Each of the film’s chapters takes place in more or less real time and in lengthy takes (in some cases just one) with months or years unfolding in the interim. There’s a self-consciousness to it, to be sure, but it also serves Covino’s aim of illustrating that, the more life changes, the more value lies in the things that stay the same, even if those aren’t always the best things for us.
In the opening scene/shot, Kyle (Kyle Marvin) is preparing for his wedding by going mountain biking with his best friend Mike (Covino). But, during a strenuous uphill climb, Mike reveal’s that he’s been sleeping with Kevin’s fiancée. For the following 90 minutes, we’ll continue to check in on the two men, their relationships with women and their families and, against all odds, their deepening friendship.
Covino’s firm stylistic grasp ensures that The Climb’s long takes lend themselves more to naturalism than showmanship. There are exceptions, like a conspicuous, Birdman-style effect that takes us from Thanksgiving to Christmas without an apparent cut. But even that can be forgiven, existing as it does in the middle of a sequence overflowing with hilariously relatable family gathering verisimilitude. Traditions observed only out of habit; partygoers who have nothing in common except blood; long-simmering disagreements threatening to boil over. All of this realness is acutely observed, including, crucially, the ease with which one can go to seed during the holidays if properly depressed and outfitted. Covino’s eye and ear for everyday tragicomedy extends to the mundanity of marriage that is sometimes frustrating but sometimes welcome.
There are enough laughs to be found in The Climb’s deliberate dreariness that it doesn’t really need any spicing up but Covino adds some musical/dance interludes anyway. The lack of necessity notwithstanding, these are fun flourishes.
The Climb may be ultimately pessimistic about most human relationships. But, it argues, the most important element in a friendship may just be reliability. Your best friend may be a terrible friend but, hey, at least you can count on him.