Remember “mumblecore”? That low-budget minimovement of indie flicks that came about in the mid-2000s in which the “write what you know” aphorism arrived at a rather horrifying dead end and viewers interested in supposedly bleeding-edge narrative cinema endured movies like “Mutual Appreciation,” “Dance Party U.S.A.,” and “Hannah Takes The Stairs,” full of minor moments stacked on top of minor moments shared by mostly white 20-somethings and shot in their own freaking apartments? Well, Eric Branco, director of “Stay Cold, Stay Hungry,” remembers mumblecore. He even cribs a few stylistic tics from the mumblecore template (actual locations, actors playing variations of their real life selves, documentary-style blocking, an embrace of a specific kind of millennial inarticulateness). Then he uses those moves to craft a devastating, quietly ambitious collaborative drama.
There’s Harley (Johnny Marra, of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society and a producer here), a homeless white boy that has, presumably, screwed over his friends and family to such an extent that he’s out there struggling, and Manny (Stephen Hill, also credited as a producer), a black, church-going, recovering alcoholic in a halfway house and quite possibly the sweetest guy on the planet. The two strike up a friendship, because Harley is intrigued and Manny has no one else, really. Manny is a damn-near-tragic figure, but you’ll probably get sick of Harley at some point. For many, the first time Harley’s slightly too-sincere demeanor appears on screen will be enough, while others might be put off by his bro dancing at an outdoor festival (at a hipster party sequence that is no doubt a parody of mumblecore indulgence). And if not by then, you’ll probably write the scrappy, chill bro off when he fakes his way into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for free doughnuts and holds onto that lie until the movie’s unsatisfactory-in-all-the-right-ways conclusion.
Details about the characters’ lives are doled out sparingly. If you’re paying close attention, though, you begin to notice that Harley’s story doesn’t entirely parse (you even see a glimmer of recognition in Manny’s face that Harley is lying, but he’s too kind or forgiving or stupidly friendly and lonely to let it sink in). In one scene, the supposedly homeless Harley is put in an emergency situation and you see him whip out a credit card. And when Manny saves Harley by wrecking a loud-mouthed real Noo Yawk type, you’re given a glimpse of Manny before recovery: equal parts open-hearted naivete and angry-at-the-world uncontrollable rage, and it’s terrifying.
Acting is what fuels “Stay Cold, Stay Hungry,” not cool shots and all that film-school stuff. Hill and Marra strike a balance between John Cassavetes-style improvised chaos (the biggest moments often come from faces reacting and revealing things the characters aren’t ready to say aloud) and intimate theatricality. A monologue from Manny, in which he talks to his pillow as if it were the daughter he isn’t allowed to see, is a bold, acting-class-exercise type of scene artfully executed and, as a result, is almost too uncomfortable to watch.
“Stay Cold, Stay Hungry” is a small movie, but it isn’t modest. What begins as a character study raises the emotional stakes scene by scene and by the end becomes an exploration of identity, race relations, the recession, gentrification and, ultimately, who’s really zooming in this still-fucked-up economy.