“Baghead” opens at a film festival where the creator of a horrifically bad little movie called “We Are Naked” holds forth with the audience during a Q&A session, answering the usual questions of what the budget was (“less than $1,000”) and how the actors were found.
“Baghead” opens at a film festival where the creator of a horrifically bad little movie called “We Are Naked” holds forth with the audience during a Q&A session, answering the usual questions of what the budget was (“less than $1,000”) and how the actors were found. The self-important director is oblivious to how awful his movie really is: At a film festival screening, in front of eager, forgiving crowds often filled with aspiring filmmakers, every picture is an Oscar contender, at least for a night.
Sitting in the audience are four friends who long to break into the film industry themselves. Armed with the confidence that, at the very least, they can come up with a movie that is the equal of “We Are Naked,” they retreat to a cabin in the woods for a weekend, intent on emerging with a finished screenplay in hand.
One of the running jokes in “Baghead,” the second feature by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (“The Puffy Chair”), is that making a movie is simply a matter of sitting down and “doing” it, like balancing your checkbook. The advent of cheap digital video cameras, combined with the willingness of superfluous regional film festivals to screen “any” movie in order to justify their existence, has resulted in an entire genre of indie films that exist only because their makers were savvy enough to find people to pay for them.
It’s a dispiriting experience to sit through a movie made by people who know only how to mimic other pictures, badly. The Duplass brothers are much craftier than that, even if “Baghead,” which turns into a horror film halfway through when someone with a bag over his head starts stalking the four would-be auteurs, sounds like a riff on the slasher genre.
By the time the knife-wielding weirdo pops up, “Baghead” has drawn us into the personalities and conflicts raging within the central quartet: the blankly handsome actor Matt (Ross Partridge), who is leading the let’s-make-a-movie charge; his ex-girlfriend Catherine (Elise Muller), who still harbors a thing for him; the sexually impulsive Michelle (Greta Gerwig), who loses all her inhibitions after two beers; and the chubby, balding Chad (Steve Zissis), who has a mad crush on Michelle and has fooled himself into thinking it is reciprocal.
Spouting partly improvised dialogue, all four actors are extremely good at creating characters who feel like real people: There are scenes of such excruciating discomfort, like the moment in which Chad boldly ventures into the drunken Michelle’s bedroom, misreading her decision to retire for the night early, that sometimes the actors don’t seem to be acting at all. “Baghead” excels where so many scrappy, no-budget indie films fail: It gets you thoroughly invested in the personal dilemmas of its unexceptional, ordinary characters, so when the (mildly) scary stuff kicks in, it carries a surprising punch.
“Baghead” will disappoint gore hounds or anyone looking for an extreme horror experience — this is more of a comedy-drama than anything else — but it’s a refreshingly brisk and modest salvo from the American independent film front, proving there’s still interesting life in the scruffy, shot-on-video genre.