As I sit down to write this review of director Noah Pritzker’s indie dramedy Quitters, the first scene that comes to mind is the one in which its principal character, Clark (played by Ben Konigsberg), asks his wary high-school English teacher Mr. Becker (Kieran Culkin) what might have elevated his B+ paper to an A. “What makes an essay exceptional?” he asks. Mr. Becker replies, “If it makes me feel something.” The same could be said for film; as fans of the medium, we tend to gravitate towards and cherish certain films for their emotional, intellectual or artistic catharsis. Even if a film’s characters are reprehensible or its subject matter distasteful, if it moves us in the slightest, its execution is successful.
I wish this was the part where I could now segue into telling you that Quitters nailed it in the emotion and catharsis categories with its multifaceted characterizations and engrossing story. I want so much to be able to say that about this film, with its outstanding cast and a premise with a wealth of [missed] opportunities to evoke sympathy. Troubled, emotionally unavailable teen Clark’s home life has disintegrated, his mother away at a fancy “retreat” after a mental breakdown, his beleaguered father trying to hold on to his flawed family even as it crumbles in his hands. After being rejected by a female friend, Etta (Kara Hayward), Clark terminates the friendship and worms and gaslights his way into the life of another classmate, Natalia (Morgan Turner). Soon the girl and her parents (Saffron Burrows, Scott Lawrence) begin to see Clark for what he truly is: a raging asshole.
I say time and time again that a story’s characters don’t have to be all nicey-nice in order to be sympathetic or likeable, or in order for the film to be enjoyable. But this Clark is so despicable a character that he makes the film an absolute chore to watch. I’m uncertain if Konigsberg’s performance lacked the nuance necessary to make his character a little more human, or if the writing is to blame; I’m inclined to believe that the actor did the best he could with a sort of shallow characterization of what it means to be a sociopath. And yes, I totally get that the character is an aloof and abrasive person to most of people in the film. But I strongly feel there should have been some contrast, some other dimension to make the character an atom-sized bit more engaging on a human level, or even one–just one!–moment of “Aww, maybe this kid’s not so bad.” Nope, the kid is a dick, and his treatment of other characters just makes the film ninety minutes of cringeworthy indie drama, and not in that still-fascinating Todd Solondz kind of way.
The rest of the cast give strong performances all around, especially Culkin with his updated and vaguely creepy twist on the eccentric-failed-writer-English-professor archetype. Mira Sorvino and Greg Germann are knockouts as Clark’s unraveled mother and oppressed, angry father. Not all of the supporting characters are likeable–in fact, I hated almost everyone in it, but that’s just me–but the actors deliver to the best of their ability, wringing as much emotion as they can muster from a somewhat detached and uneven script. They made me feel something; I just don’t know that it was enough to counter the Clarkness that keeps this film from being an exceptional film.