As a follow-up to his 2007 film Neutral, local director Joe Chang’s latest film, Present, is a much more traditional affair. Eschewing the fluid narrative and surreal moments we saw in Neutral, Chang opts for a straightforward plot with distinct concerns — making for a quiet, small movie that’s intimate and human. Written by Chang, the film follows an awkward performance artist named Daniel (Nesey Gallons) who’s touring the South doing shows in living rooms to small audiences. After stopping in Asheville, he meets up with his sister Dorothy (Faith Callaway), and — along with her roommate Cassie (Mariana Templin) — they take a short road trip to their hometown of Mount Airy.
As far as plot goes, that’s pretty much it. Chang’s more interested in how his characters — especially the familial relationship between Daniel and Dorothy — unfold. This is handled in realistic terms, never approaching melodrama. It’s an extremely simple approach that may not be to everyone’s taste. In fact, the entire film takes on a certain utilitarian style, as the camera work and plot (besides a quick fantasy sequence to open the film) are never overcooked. Much of this has to do with filmmakers working on a tiny budget, but it’s also partly a filmmaking aesthetic since the film is almost solely character-driven. Luckily, Chang skirts the problem many indie features have by getting good performances out of a cast of unknowns. Yes, there are occasional clumsy moments and a few awkwardly delivered lines, but there’s nothing worth cringing over. In fact, there are a few surprisingly tender pieces in Present’s quieter spots.
There’s an underlying sense of nostalgia that runs through the film, seen mostly through Daniel’s sentimental views toward past eras like old Hollywood and his changing hometown — not to mention his love of antiquated things like his Super 8 camera. There’s even what appears to be an accidental commentary on a changing Asheville since parts of the film were shot at the now closed Silver Dollar restaurant, outside the defunct Studio Five Imports and inside the Leader Building. Chang and cinematographer Greg Hudgins do themselves a good service with their choice of locations and find visually interesting spots to film in, like the River Arts District. While budgetary constraints make for a film that’s rough around the edges, Present is worth a look for anyone interested in Asheville’s homegrown film scene.
Present will play for one show only on Wednesday, April 17 at 7 p.m. at Fine Arts Theatre