Review – Alan – A Feature-Length Student Film

Alan re-imagines Woody Allen’s self-philosophising for its seventeen-year-old protagonist.

It’s a student produced film that the film’s writer and director Sam Toller has asked me to review, and that recently received a number of screenings in Bristol, including at the Watershed cinema. The film’s producers are currently fundraising online, and if this review catches your interest you can read more about the film there:

It’s an admirable feat for such a younger filmmaker to attempt something on this scale and there are very few signs of strain in the film, manifesting mostly only as odd sound editing. Scenes flow confidently from one into another, and the cinematic influences chart a path from French New Wave all the way through to the snappiness of modern day Edgar Wright. The style is simple and only rarely flashy, and when the film turns to unusual camerawork and animation it is noticeably anomalous.

In the absence of budget Alan places the emphasis on its dialogue and acting, and it’s here that the film may be alienating to those unable to sympathise with the protagonist and the themes that he grapples with. Alan’s flaws and obstacles come from within rather than from the outside world, notably in his failure to cope well with his dying relationship, and it can be frustrating to see this kind of self-sabotage in action. The writing is intelligent enough to be well aware that Alan is naïve and making mistakes, but it certainly makes an emotional investment in his struggles more challenging.

Alan 1

That’s not to say these aren’t universal themes, but rather that they are always filtered through the perspective of Alan’s world view. Many of the other characters feel like supporting pieces or influences rather than independent realistic people, even as the script provides them with little touches of background. Layla Madanat and Artie Godden give the most confident and competent performance of the cast as two of Alan’s close friends, lending a liveliness to their scenes that feels lacking elsewhere.

For the most part Alan’s dark dry sense of humour is well-calibrated and focussed, though there are a few moments when the acting is hammed up (very successfully) for comic effect. The character of Alan is more entertaining when he’s up and active rather than mopey, and he’s at his most enjoyable in these moments when he’s chewing out an ex-Cambridge professor or trying to score alcohol on the streets of London. Toller’s performance is at its best when he has other characters and environments to play off of, and it’s sometimes a bit too easy to tell which scenes were shot with a more limited crew.

A number of scenes or monologues run too long and there’s definitely more fat that can be trimmed for a shorter cut that would improve the film’s flow and address many of these issues. The single camera angle used for many scenes of dialogue is a double-edged sword – it keeps Toller’s directorial vision clear and simple but likely made it harder to cut lines down in editing, and some shots run for minutes at a time. The scoring is also a mixed success. It’s nice to have music to add emotional touches to some scenes but sometimes silence might have benefited Alan, especially those that last a long while.

Alan 2

The film takes a satisfying turn in its latter half when Alan finally cuts ties with his girlfriend, affording less time to his negative behaviour and more to his growth as a character. The last half hour is far more upbeat and less dour as a result, even as it hits the expected beats. In the end though none of the lessons that Alan learns are particularly profound it feels important that he’s learned them nonetheless.

As stylish as they are, the moments of animation and summer camera montage feel like unnecessary deviations that don’t fit nicely into the rest of the film. That said, some of the shorter and more wordless moments are Alan’s best, especially the simple self-explanatory ending. With these kinds of lessons, many of which have doubtless already been learned in the process of making Alan, it’s very easy to imagine Sam Toller blossoming into an increasingly confident and capable filmmaker building on this foundation.

If Woody Allen’s films are more coming-of-middle-age (if that’s not a phrase I’m coining it here), Alan is a more traditional coming-of-age film done in that kind of style, and for a feature length debut the level of ambition is wisely reasonable. Just as Alan’s character is flawed and with room to grow, so does the film Alan feel similar in many respects. Kudos to the film’s production team for already having created such a long feature at such a young age – such an achievement no doubt speaks for itself.

Score: Seventeen but doesn’t feel like it’s peaked.


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