I’m hard-pressed to think of a better independent film than My Name is Jerry.* Going into it, I was not at all confident that I’d enjoy it. On one hand, I love Doug Jones, and was curious to see how he would fare as a leading man when not hidden by monster makeup. On the other, the movie was co-created by Morgan Mead, who wrote and directed one of the worst indie films I’ve ever seen, My Bloody Wedding. I’m happy to say that Jones is wonderful here, and that Mead wisely spends his bullets on making a gorgeous, expensive-looking picture—while leaving the screenplay to a professional.
Jones stars as Jerry, a mid-40s door-to-door book salesman with an estranged teenage daughter and no enthusiasm for his dead-end career. His best friend, David (Don Stark), sets him up with an interview at another company, and it takes every ounce of long-lost enthusiasm to convince the recruiter, Dana (Catherine Hicks), that she should offer him a probationary position. Soon, Jerry and David are running a satellite sales office out of the public storage unit in which they keep the stock for their day-jobs.
To further lift his friend’s spirits, David invites Jerry to a 4th of July party at his big, new house. He puts the wrong address on the invitations, though, sending Jerry and many other guests to a punk party a mile away. In this sequence, Mead and Jones beautifully state the film’s thesis: a young girl named Jordan (Katlyn Carlson) answers the door and informs Jerry that he’s come to the wrong place; he’s smitten with her, but also with the house full of carefree, dancing twenty-somethings. Moments later, he shows up at David’s place, which is packed with fat, middle-aged suburbanites wearing polo shirts on their day off. Mead doesn’t make a big deal of this contrast. He lets Jones’ face tell the whole story, and it’s as if the actor literally ignites a spark behind his own eyes that had been burnt out for decades.
The next day, Jerry goes out for the first sales call of his new job. Afterwards, he pops into a record store across the street and meets Chaz (Steven Yeun), an employee who recognizes him from the party. Chaz invites Jerry to see his band play at a bar; the bartender happens to be Chaz’s good friend and housemate, Jordan, who begins a fast friendship/hipster-mentorship with Jerry. Soon, the buttoned-down square is catching up on the history of punk music and tearing the sleeves off his suit coats.
From here, My Name is Jerry blossoms into a surprising relationship movie built on conventional premises. David Hamilton’s screenplay (based on a story idea by Mead and Andrew Janoch) is full of archetypes and situations you’ve seen a hundred times before (the cute, Asian neighbor with the non-English-speaking mother who wants her daughter to marry a Nice American Boy; the strained father/daughter relationship that wouldn’t have been so strained had dad bothered to send the years’ worth of holiday cards that he keeps in a box; and on and on). The film succeeds both because Hamilton tweaks these elements just enough to keep the audience on its toes, and because the actors are so sincere in their performances that they make the material feel very original.
Not only are there no lousy actors in this bunch, they’re all stellar. Mead knows the value of a great face, and aside from Jones—who I’ll get to in a minute—_My Name is Jerry_ is packed with people who don’t look like actors. I’ve seen Stark in many beaten-down, half-deluded career men. I’ve known cute, alternative girls like Carlson, who could’ve been models had they not looked down on the profession as the height of vapidity; I’ve had meetings with perky yet brutal managers who look like Hicks, people whose childhood dreams of greatness eroded with the perceived security that only a 401(k) can provide. The handful of “known” performers in this film made me forget within minutes that I’ve seen them in other things.
Of course, the big star is Jones, who makes Jerry into much more than an American Beauty-style sad clown. Though known for his elegant pliability in movies like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, here he stretches both his physical and non-physical gifts, creating a wreck of a man who is at once sympathetic and just plain pathetic. At the beginning of the film, he carries himself like a zombie and speaks like a defeated, slightly nervous slave. As Jerry opens up to new experiences, Jones peels back layers of spiritual grime to reveal, in the end, a spark of empowerment. My one critique of his performance is the bit of Buster Keaton in his earlier scenes, which feels out of place. Jerry is a drone, not a performance artist, and there’s a brilliant scene in which one of the punk kids at the bar sidles up to Jerry and puts his hand on his shoulder, as if to stifle the manic energy.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning Allison Scagliotti, who plays Jerry’s teenage daughter, Trisha. She’s fantastic here, imbuing the role of the skeptical, grumpy daughter with a wit and a callousness that hits way too close to home. Like Jerry, Trisha is on a journey, the goal of which is to not only figure out who her dad is as a person, but also to come to terms with her own abandonment issues. She’s a vocal reminder for Jerry that the youthful mistakes he never stopped making (his lack of self-esteem and drive tore his marriage apart) have harsh consequences outside of the lonely cocoon he’s built for himself. Scagliotti effortlessly illustrates the nature-versus-nurture struggle that her dad must recognize in order to save both of them.
Did I mention that My Name is Jerry looks amazing? On an estimated budget of just $65,000, Morgan Mead has pulled together a production that looks more like a slick television show than a cheap indie film (I can’t quite put my finger on what keeps it from having a consistent “motion picture” quality—maybe it’s because the lighting in the bar scenes reminds me of One Tree Hill).
Just as the screenplay tweaks storytelling conventions, so do Mead and cinematographer Nathan Wilson put playful spins on fancy “film school” shots. From the hackneyed water-cooler scene that’s shot at a harsh angle to accentuate the oppressive, ice-cold block-windows of Jerry and David’s office, to the surprising take on the two-people-sitting-at-a-very-long-table shot, the number and variety of interesting-looking scenes enhance even the most mundane settings (the cutest example is the “Dead End” sign outside of Jerry’s house, which I didn’t pick up on until almost the end of the movie).
The key to Mead’s success, I think, is that, like Quentin Tarantino, he realizes that even the most clichéd premise can be made into a wildly entertaining, interesting movie. My Name is Jerry has a terrific “first film” quality to it that shows how badly the director wants every aspect of his shot at the big-time to be note-perfect. The result is a surprising, touching film whose message is as relevant to weary travelers struggling with forks in the road as it is to those about to take their first steps into adulthood. If you haven’t seen My Name is Jerry, please, place it at the top of your queue and enjoy. I love this movie.
*No, I haven’t seen every independent film ever made. If you’d like to suggest a contender, please drop me a line.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 08/23/11.]