November 21, 2009

REVIEW: Etienne!

There are two kinds of pet owners in the world: cat and dog owners, and bird/fish/reptile/rodent owners. I've recently joined the ranks of the former, but for a good part of my childhood I was one of the latter. Due to my dad's reluctance to own a dog (he was once bitten by a rabid German shepherd), and due to the time and money required to care for cats and dogs, we had a series of hamsters - adorably soft little dwarf hamsters, more specifically. They live about two years and were a great source of enjoyment and entertainment for our family (I once accidentally sucked one up with the vacuum hose - she survived).

It takes a special kind of person to appreciate dwarf hamsters, and by extension, a special kind of person to appreciate a movie about one. I couldn't believe it when I saw the description for Etienne! in the Flyway Film Festival lineup: "After Richard's best and only friend, a dwarf hamster named Etienne, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to take him on a bicycle road trip up the California coast to show him the world before he must put him to sleep." I had to see this movie.

For better and for worse, Etienne! wasn't exactly what I expected. The story of Richard and Etienne's bonding trip gradually fades and takes a backseat to what amounts to a coming-of-age tale, even a romantic comedy. Maybe this shouldn't come as a surprise, because it would take some impressive writing (or a lot of cheap gags) to sustain a story about a hamster's road trip for 88 minutes. 

Writer/director Jeff Mizushima adapted Etienne! from a short film he made at Cal State Long Beach, and it has all the characteristics of a debut feature: refreshing originality, unpolished set pieces, great music (a phenomenal folk-rock soundtrack), not-so-great acting, and a cinematic style that almost screams, "Look at me, I'm different!". Mizushima fortunately backs that claim up - Etienne! really is a different kind of film, both a relationship story and romantic dramedy that avoids the trappings of formulaic clich├ęs. Its tender characters and sweet story reminded me of both Napoleon Dynamite and The Station Agent, though it's more sincere than the first and quirkier than the second.


So as it turns out Etienne! really isn't about a hamster, per se, as much as it's about the kind of person who would take a hamster on a road trip. Richard (Richard Vallejos) is an odd guy, and I couldn't for the life of me nail down his age (25, give or take 10 years?), but both he his soulmate Elodie (Megan Harvey) are positively magnetic on screen. Etienne is pretty cute, too - a fine representative of dwarf hamsters everywhere relishing their 15 minutes of fame in this charming movie.

Etienne! screened at the 2009 Flyway Film Festival and has been traveling the festival circuit this fall. Keep an eye out for a screening near you, or save it to your Netflix queue prior to its DVD distribution sometime in 2010.


2 comments:

  1. Although I can well understand this recalling both NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and THE STATION AGENT in emotional resonance, I also think of FLOWERS OF ALGERNON, from which the 1968 film CHARLEY was adapted, winning Cliff Robertson his acting Oscar. But that film and story are about a labratory mouse, not a hamster, so there goes my rather silly comparison.

    In any case, I laughed when I read this:

    "After Richard's best and only friend, a dwarf hamster named Etienne, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to take him on a bicycle road trip up the California coast to show him the world before he must put him to sleep." I had to see this movie..."

    but the chuckle was bittersweet of course. I would have wanted to see it as well after reading that!

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  2. Haha, yes, Flowers for Algernon is a great comparison as well - I totaly forgot about that. This is a much lighter story, though, and I hope I don't ruin the surprise by saying that the ending is ironic and uplifting.

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