Sony Pictures Classics

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The Climb is a film borne out of frustration. It is written by its two stars, Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin, with Covino directing. Both men are in their thirties or forties, and after years as outsiders in the industry, they’ve finally made a breakout feature for themselves. This is the rare comedy that avoids autopilot, or any sense of a traditional set-up and punchline. Instead, Covino uses unusual formal and storytelling techniques—at least, unusual in comedy—to keep the audience on edge. Some of the comedy can be ruthless and dark, although Covino and Marvin govern it with hard-earned empathy.

We first see Kyle and Mike on a long bike ride through the French mountains. Kyle is struggling, while Mike has more experience as a cyclist. They’re talking about their lives through pained breaths, then something unexpected happens. Mike tells Kyle he slept with his fiancée. A panting Kyle tries to reach Mike so they can fight, but he stays just out of reach (Mike later says, “That’s why I waited for the hill.”) The scene ends with Mike and Kyle in the hospital, and here’s where more plot specifics would only dilute the movie’s significant charms. Let’s just say that their story unfolds over years, with Kyle’s loved ones growing increasingly exasperated over his enduring friendship.

In order to understand Mike and Kyle, The Climb argues, you must get a deeper sense of who these men are. Mike is not just toxic and self-destructive; he is deeply selfish, with darkness in his heart. Kyle is a kind soul, one who recognizes the good in people, and whose sense of forgiveness is endless. They have been friends since they were kids, and these dynamics surely existed in the early phases of their friendship. Now the dynamic has curdled, leading to painfully funny scenes like when Kyle’s mother (Talia Balsam) gives Mike some tough love. By the time Mike attempts to “save” Kyle at another joyous occasion, there is tension and suspense along with comic anarchy. Covino gives the uncanny suggestion that anything can happen, and it often does.

On top of the deadpan one-liners, this film looks and acts like few comedies. The camera glides through the characters, and nearly every take lasts for minutes. By giving viewers a more omnipotent viewpoint, Covino does not make it easy to guess just how a situation will unfold. The other, more important consequence of that technique is the viewer must take an active role, evaluating and deducing the dynamics of family and friendship in real time. Through a “lived in” mise en scène, Covino is able to define supporting characters in a just a few moments.

Marvin is a terrific everyman—there is a froggy lilt to his voice that makes his exasperation all the more hilarious—but it is Covino who steals the show. His performance has no affect or broad comic strains. If Mike was in your life, he would be a disaster. As a needy outsider, he falls into a familiar pattern: he thrives on pity, then uses that goodwill in ways that violate any sense of decency and common sense. The running gag is that people keep giving him a shot, and even when he earns it, he is still a complete prick. We have all known someone like Mike, and no film has ever depicted someone like him well.

There are a range of unlikely influences in The Climb, and many of them are not obvious. In terms of exposing the toxicity of male friendship, there’s a bit of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to the film (that show was also created by frustrated actors). In terms of its episodic structure and huge narrative leaps forward, there’s some of Moonlight in its DNA. Either way, all its influences, belly laughs, and genuine heartbreak culminate in a film that defies easy summary. In a moment when most comedies are hastily assembled joke factories, this one feels like it’s alive.

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The Climb opens in Virginia theaters on November 13.