People who flee suffocating hometowns often have a few things in common: They dream of bigger lives for themselves. They don’t like the kind of person they become when they return. And they pity old friends who stay.
In writer-director Kristopher Avedisian’s feature debut, Donald Cried, the dynamic between big and small fishes and their inverse ponds plays out to awkward, exasperating, and at times devastating effect. Based on a story idea by Kyle Espeleta and Jesse Wakeman, and adapted from the same-titled short that Avedisian also directed, the film opens with Peter (Wakeman) asking a cab driver if he could take him back to the bus station because he lost his wallet. The cabbie refuses, but Wakeman has traveled to his snowy roots from New York City to sort the affairs of his deceased grandmother, so he reluctantly knocks on the door of his high school pal, Donald (Avedisian), to ask for help.
The mulleted, goofy Donald at first doesn’t recognize Peter, who’s wearing a fine coat and neatly tucked scarf. And Donald, while he’s “still processing this reality,” goes on and on about how different he imagined Peter would now look. And then he invites him to his room, which is covered with posters of porn stars. “Do you still masturbate?” Donald asks, eager to give his friend a recommendation for material. It takes a while, but Peter finally gets Donald to give him a ride to the funeral home, where he attempts to say goodbye. “I thought you wanted to hang out with me,” Donald says. Oof. So they hang out.
Donald Cried is being promoted as a partial comedy, but there’s little that’s funny about a seemingly slow-witted, emotionally-stunted man and his estranged, sophisticated friend. Donald embarrasses Peter wherever they go, whether he’s talking too loudly in the funeral home or starting a conversation with a former classmate in a diner. Peter just wants to borrow money and split, but getting cash is an ordeal (the way Donald’s boss treats him when he asks for his check is horrifying) and Donald essentially holds Peter hostage, insisting they stop in one place or another before going to the nursing facility so Peter can gather his grandmother’s belongings.
Throughout the film, Donald morphs from irritating to possibly unhinged when we discover how he’s spent his spare time over the last six years. But tides turn—not very realistically, but go with it—and not only do his motivations become uncertain, he’s met with pure jackassery that, unlike his own, can’t be mistaken as well-intentioned. And when a past prank is brought up by a mutual friend, it more firmly characterizes Donald and Peter’s history and why Peter wants to leave both the town and his memories as soon as possible.
For a film devoted largely to only two characters, Donald Cried never bores. Avedisian deftly creates an atmosphere of awfulness from scene to scene, and his Donald—all smiles, tangents, and “c’mon”s—is a person from whom anyone would want to run. Wakeman is equally evocative as Peter changes from likeably understandable to stuffed shirt and worse. That your sympathies repeatedly switch between the friends drives the narrative like a bullet train; that the film ends without closure ensures that it sticks in your head just like Donald sticks to Peter. Donald Cried may not make you laugh, but every moment of it will make you feel.
Donald Cried opens tomorrow at the Angelika Pop-Up.