There’s an inherent conflict of interest in reviewing a locally produced film as a WNC native. My most valiant attempts to maintain objectivity go right out the window every time I recognize a notable landmark or spot a well-known streetscape — so if local writer/director Joshua Overbay’s Asheville-shot indy Luke and Jo scores some extra points with me, you’ll have to forgive my bias. But as cool as it is to see the interior of Jack of the Wood or All Souls Cathedral on the big screen, and as much as I geek out when an actor in a feature film picks up a can of Wedge Iron Rail IPA, there’s a great deal to recommend this low-budget melodrama even to people who couldn’t care less about such things.
Co-scripted with lead actress Andie Morgenlander, Overbay’s film is a deeply personal story of a distinctly millennial midlife crisis. Luke and Jo probes an existential angst inherent to creative professions — but not specific to them — as aspiring screenwriter Luke (Erik Odom) faces the familiar dilemma of chasing his dreams versus providing stability for his young family. The urgency of this choice is exacerbated by his wife, Kate (Mary Katherine O’Donnell), supportive financially but not creatively, as Luke sets out for a last-ditch attempt to break into the industry at a prestigious film festival. Squarely at the end of his metaphorical rope, Luke’s struggle with depression and suicidal ideation leads to a chance encounter with a young musician (Morgenlander) that will irrevocably alter his outlook.
Overbay and Morgenlander are tackling some very weighty human themes, and Luke and Jo’s heavily improvised script suits its tone admirably. In examining not only the artistic temperament of its protagonist but also the conflict that such pursuits necessarily engender, the filmmakers are undoubtedly delving into well-trodden territory. But if the narrative feels familiar, the intimate nature of the script and its robust character development keep Luke and Jo from teetering over the edge into the heavily populated abyss of cookie-cutter indy festival bait.
Though festival bait it certainly is, as despite its modest budget and lo-fi aesthetic, it seems poised to be a strong contender for significant accolades on the circuit. Overbay clearly has a strong sense of story structure, and aside from some excusable second-act drag, his narrative pacing is spot-on. The cast is uniformly solid, with Odom a standout leading man and Morgenlander delivering a charmingly unpolished performance. While cinematographer Nathaniel Glass’ handheld work occasionally veers too far into shaky-cam territory for my taste, Overbay’s directorial voice is consistently clear, and Glass executes that vision with admirable professionalism.
What Luke and Jo lacks in flash, it more than makes up for in personality, and its Asheville setting contributes an added allure for locals lucky enough to attend its one-night-stand premiere at the Fine Arts Theatre. It’s far from the biggest production to showcase Asheville in recent years, but it might be the most in keeping with the town’s independent spirit. The big guys might shoot at Biltmore, but Luke and Jo shoots at the Downtown Inn — and that sense of integrity only enhances its appeal for those of us who know and love this town. Not Rated.
One screening only, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 28, at Fine Arts Theatre.