Sundance 2013 Review: C.O.G. Paints a Riveting Portrait of Self-Discovery
Have you ever wanted to unplug from the world? I mean, really, really unplug. Not for a day, or a week, but for as long as you can possibly can. Or even better, what about giving life a change and doing something completely out of your comfort zone? I have this fantasy that one day I'll disappear from the online world and years later you'll find me working on a boat, gutting fish in a long beard and looking tough. But let's be honest, that'll never happen. I'm not brave enough to step outside of what I know best. But you know who was? David Sedaris.
If you're reading this, chances are you're aware of who the highly celebrated Sedaris is from his acclaimed essays and books. And you may also know that Sedaris has never given any filmmaker his blessing to make one of his deeply personal and unapologetic stories into a feature film. Many directors have tried, but he has shot them down. That is, until now -- he finally gave one man a chance, 29-year-old filmmaker Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
At 25, Alvarez made his first feature called Easier with Practice, which earned him the Someone to Watch award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards in 2010, and deservedly so. This film is arresting in every way possible and looks like it was made by a Hollywood veteran. Easier with Practice was adapted from an article Alvarez found in GQ. He took a very short essay and turned it into a poignant and touching feature film. So it's a no-brainer as to why Sedaris gave Alvarez his blessing, which brings us to C.O.G.
C.O.G. (pronounced "see-oh-gee") is based on Sedaris' short essay of the same name, and takes place at a time in his life when he left his family and friends behind to go work on an apple farm. Instead of getting his Ph.D., he opted for a change of pace to get his hands a little dirty. Stepping outside his comfort zone, if you will. He tells people he's "just taking some time off," but it's more of a "fuck you" to his family since they're currently not speaking. We're not sure why, we just know he desperately wanted to get away. And he did.
When we first meet David (Jonathan Groff), err, Samuel ... let's go back a step -- David doesn't want people to know his name is David, so he goes by Samuel (not Sam - formality is important to him). He's on a bus to his new paradise but already losing his mind. He un-lucked out and took the bus that carries the most insane passengers imaginable. We laugh as we watch them nag at him, but it surely sucks for him. Samuel has a sharp tongue and when one of the passengers persistently tells him to put down the book he's reading and pick up the Bible, he tells the persistent traveler that the sacred book he really wants him to read is "poorly written." This well-educated young man is a brash smart-ass and feeds off it.
When he arrives on the farm, he calls his mother and leaves her a voicemail. "Maybe you'll hear from me, but you probably won't," he says, right before hanging up. His adventure begins on this apple farm, but his journey takes crazy and unexpected turns, and he winds up becoming an clock-making apprentice to Jon (Denis O'Hare), a man who lives and breathes by that aforementioned Book Samuel once called poorly written. They are polar opposites, and they will either bond, or they won't. It all depends on whether or not Samuel is a true C.O.G. -- Child of God.
C.O.G. has some really spectacular performances. Jonathan Groff is widely known from Glee, but C.O.G. will surely make him one of the breakout stars of 2013. Unsure where he'll end up, Samuel hits the ground running and makes every situation he's in work. Groff helps Samuel find his feet with natural presence of determination and curiosity. And casting Denis O'Hare as the nutty Jesus freak was a smart choice. O'Hare fits right in with the Michael Shannons and John Hawkeses of Hollywood -- he might not be the prettiest boy of the ball, but he's unmistakably one of the most magnetic actors working in Hollywood. Alvarez gives him plenty of room to show that here.
These two performances really shine, but the movie soars based on Alvarez' ability to tell this particular story. C.O.G. has a lot of heart in it, and that's due to his careful direction and steadfast faithfulness to Sedaris' creation, as well as the additional flavors he adds to keep it delicious. C.O.G. starts out as a journey of wanted changes, and turns into an compelling movie about finding yourself through that often unpleasant and unexpected crazy little thing we call "life." Alvarez turns a personal account from Sedaris into his own story. C.O.G. is marvelous.
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