A cut above

Most road movies share one crucial element. While young love (Niagara, Niagara) is a popular theme, wild living (Natural Born Killers, etc.) is the only essential ingredient. Even the quasi-feminist Thelma & Louise featured enough boozing and gunplay to blast home its “girls rule” message.

No one gets held up, tied up, f•••ed up or blown away in Laura Colella’s road movie. No one even drives, for that matter. In fact, nothing crazy happens in Tax Day — and yet the film risks its whole premise on arousing a sense of adventure.

Set in Providence, R.I., Tax Day features two middle-aged friends, Irene and Paula, who begin a short walk to the post office. It’s April 15, so they have to get there. And they do — eventually.

The action starts almost immediately. Offscreen, we hear an entreaty — “Need a ride?” — and suddenly we see the women drifting down a canal in two canoes, each boat ferried by a young man. A friend of the guys follows their trajectory from the bridge above, running to keep up with the serenely gliding canoes and shouting urgent greetings. The scene evolves slowly, to surreal and humorous effect. You’re not quite sure what’s funny — yet the laughter evoked is the gut-felt kind that wakes you up from a nonsense dream.

In particular, the boat ride refreshes Paula, who starts her day on a jaded note. (Earlier, she offers a spot-on description of cabin fever when, bemoaning the fact that she hasn’t managed to leave Providence despite that city’s habitually brutal winters, she muses, “April rolls around and we have short memories. … We don’t act fast enough.”) Once on dry land, the two meet a host of other fellow “travelers,” including a touchy but good-hearted fruit-seller; a desperate, would-be professional photographer; a sexy fireman; a circle of kids on strike against their elementary school; and a troupe of young breakdancers.

As with any good road movie, absurd situations materialize faster than you can say, “Which way to Texarkana?” One memorable encounter involves a lonely, clever old woman who lures the two women up to her apartment for tea and coaxes them into taking her photograph. In another scene, Irene and Paula stumble upon a yard sale. The couple hosting the event, recently moved into the adjacent house, have decided to jettison everything that doesn’t “go” with their new home.

“Of course, we should have done this before we moved in,” the wife chirps. Her husband isn’t up to her Zen cheerfulness, however. At one point, he sulkily affixes a price of $80 on an apparently worthless piece of wood.

Colella toys smartly with our expectations. In the movie’s most surprisingly emotional scene, a pretty woman with a buttery Italian accent heaps mournful invective on her philandering, bus-driver husband — while she’s riding on his bus. He stops to let her off, and Irene and Paula follow the wronged wife. “Sack of s••t,” Paula mutters at the bus driver in passing. The next shot shows the three of them kicked back on a couch by the side of the road, the wife detailing for them what she sees as her wasted life. Irene contributes a woeful account of her own ex-husband — but where another director might get drunk on the men-suck manifesto and lose control of the scene, Colella gives us real life. Suddenly, we realize that Irene and Paula aren’t listening to their new friend anymore: Their focus has shifted to a posse of comely construction workers toiling across the street.

Mostly, though, the movie’s mood is sunny and hopeful, rhythmically casual and faintly psychedelic in a way that recalls certain ’70s-era coming-of-age films.

“It was a goal of mine to make the film eventful and entertaining without basing the plot on conflict, which is generally thought of as the necessary main ingredient for narrative,” the indie filmmaker explained recently.

“I think this is the major reason that movie violence is so ubiquitous — because it’s tied to conflict and is an easy way to create drama, tension or a climax,” Colella continues. “For Tax Day, rather than starting with a general plot idea — like ‘Two guys rob a bank’ — and then building on it, I began with a collection of many details. For about two years, I gathered ideas for characters, locations, bits of dialogue, themes and situations without knowing how they would fit together in a story. Then eventually, they reached a critical mass and came together like a puzzle. So in a sense, the script was written from the outside in, based on details rather than on a traditional plot.”

Tax Day’s intimate, we’re-all-in-this-together feel is no accident: “I knew all of the kids with speaking roles quite well; in fact, most are relatives,” the filmmaker reveals. “The kids who perform in the film, like the breakdancers and flippers, are from an arts school called The Carriage House that my boyfriend’s family runs.” Indeed, a strong regional vibe spikes the movie — though Colella points out it could really be set in any city.

“The film definitely has a flavor that is peculiar to Providence — a lot of people have said that it does a good job of capturing the city’s strange qualities. But I think parallel experiences could happen in any city or town. The film has themes related to resisting isolation and breaking routine; the main characters do so by taking a sort of spontaneous, roaming vacation in their own city.

“If the setting weren’t Providence it would be very different, but I’d love to see multiple versions of the film set in various cities around the world, with different types of sites, encounters and experiences.”

In the movie’s closing scenes, Paula and Irene finally reach the post office. There, they’re confronted — not unrealistically, at this point — by Uncle Sam himself. Like Santa Claus’ tacky, upwardly mobile cousin, he jovially invites the two women to sit on his lap. “You! Are! Beautiful!” he trumpets.

By this time, viewers may have noticed that the two women manage to luck into a lot of free stuff over the course of their journey — an unexpected canoe ride, free fruit, a gratis photo. And yet it’s April 15 — the day all working Americans must pay up, so to speak. Might this be a jab at soulless Big Brother?

“There is a strong anti-conformist streak in the film,” Colella acknowledges. “But at the same time, it is not at all anti-community or even anti-taxes. In many ways, it presents a utopian vision. When talking with people who’ve seen the film, it seems that those who consciously interpret a political stance are a minority. It’s definitely there, and to some it’s clear as day. But I think most people just have a good time.”

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