Tallgrass Film Festival Review: When Jeff Tried to Save the World

Seeing a director get to produce their full vision is a rare thing, sort of like a shot of tequila that doesn’t fill you with regret, and when executed properly it’s gorgeous. Kendall Goldberg has achieved this in a strange way that dabbles in comedy, domestic depression, bowling, and nigh-on Lynchian levels of anxiety-related dreamscape sequences. When everything is wrapped up in polished wood and neon lights it gets hard to see beyond the aesthetics and into the heart of this little character story but that’s exactly what keeps it grounded – its little story. When we think of directors getting to achieve these kinds of goals we think of  large-scale productions or auteurs creating abject horrors that mirror social issues but…sometimes it’s just fascinating to watch someone want to save their workplace.

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Director Kendall Goldberg and actor Jon Heder

And Jeff really does try to save his world. Jon Heder stars as a charming individual that could be more than he is, but there’s joy in his work as a manager for Winky’s World bowling alley. Goldberg has commented that she, “just wanted to make a movie about a bowling alley…and it snowballed from there and ultimately became  me projecting my fears of change and being out of my comfort zone.” And every bit of that shows through Jeff in simple sections like watching him open for the day or interact with regular customers. There’s a happiness in the little things like waxed floors, clean counters, and prepped bowling shoes that don’t always bring a smile, but they feel comforting. When he’s told that the alley will be closing, that it will be sold and all employees laid off, there’s a brightness that comes to his eyes. He’s worried, yes, but he’s not going down without a fight and that confidence only surfaces when his comfort zone is threatened. This job has been kept a secret from nigh-on everyone because he’s afraid they’d be disappointed in him, in his complacency, but it all means the world to him and it’s worth fighting for.

And this is interesting when held up to his sister Lindy and her roommate/BFF Samantha, who just appear in Jeff’s home and take over his world for a while. Both are in med school and both have a sort of envy for his peaceful existence. Lindy has spent her whole life trying to be her brother, to be impressive enough to gain her parents’ affection and finally be as important to them as Jeff. Samantha, on the other hand, is merely trying to grit her teeth through her family situation and her involvement in this little drama proves to be a source of comfort for her during this. Jeff himself provides a sort of weird, cathartic release for both of them as the women get more involved in his life. There’s a complicated dynamic going on here,  with secrets being shared and given away again and each time it benefits the trio as a whole.

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Kendall Goldberg and Jim O’Heir at the Tallgrass Film Festival Q&A session

The rest of the cast is wonderful as well, whether it’s Jim O’Heir (you’ll recognize him from Parks & Rec) as building owner Carl or Candi Milo as Sheila, his alcoholic ex-wife and manager, you’re given a reason to follow each of these individuals on their small journeys. When you attempt to give each character a small arc a narrative can often feel bloated, overblown and worn out, but this instead feels on-point and pared down to the bone for execution that is absolutely pitch-perfect. A young boy opens up and takes inspiration, an on-site maintenance man opens his heart, hell even a regular bowler at the alley with almost no lines has a small arc that never feels tacked-on or excessive but instead just serves the greater themes of the story and moves Jeff’s character growth along. There’s no secret to how to do this, but Kendall Goldberg absolutely makes it seem like she’s got something tucked up her sleeve.

And there still more things up that sleeve in this film’s narrative choices that aren’t something you’re ready for going in – its masterful dream sequences. These are incredible fun to watch, as though David Lynch had begun directing in the mid 80’s while wrapped in blue and yellow neon and blasting a Duran Duran single on repeat in his apartment. Obsessively detailed mazework, a few fun bits of trickery not only taking imagery from bowling but also video games and iconography from the film’s world-building but also the best bits of camera work from the film. For some shots there’s a sense of symmetry, of the way that the set is balanced in the shot blocking, that is unsettling but charming. It builds a sense of anxiety and ties it to the pressure that Jeff is under wonderfully. I enjoyed all of this film but these are my favorite sequences because you can see Goldberg get a little cocky, confident in her skills and visual flair, and it works!

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When Jeff Tried to Save the World snagged that sweet distribution by Gunpowder & Sky (responsible for other highly buzzed releases like The Little Hours, Lords of Chaos, Prospect, and indie darling Hearts Beat Loud) and will be coming out in December at the end of the year. So…get off your ass and go see this because few things I saw this year can be described as “charming.” I’ve seen harrowing, moving, gorgeous, and stunning but this isn’t those things. It’s all of them as well, but this is also a slice-of-life narrative that pulls no punches and takes chances while managing to endear itself to the viewers. The film will definitely leave some unsatisfied but as Kendall Goldberg has pointed out, “That’s life.” And she’s right on the money. I’ve called this a “little story” several times now, but that’s only in scope because the things accomplished here are anything but little. A challenging narrative, anxious main character, and workplace dynamic all come together to make a hell of a film that, like bowling in and of itself, just wants you to have a good time.  

When Jeff Tried to Save the World will receive a limited release in December of this year, distributed by Gunpowder & Sky. Get off your butts and make time for it. You can follow the film at www.whenjeffmovie.com or on twitter with @WhenJeffMovie

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