After an aggressive but graceful drum solo, performed behind the opening credits, we’re shown a familiar face. It’s the defeated face of youth, which in its wild desire for meaning and storybook conclusions, has recently come face-to-face with reality. This is never a contentious meeting, but it’s not exactly civil, either. It’s like getting open-heart surgery: grave, unpleasant, beneficial and absolutely necessary for the continuation of a fruitful life.
“He talks his friends into forsaking their hopes of getting laid…to see his musical hero perform…”
The face in question belongs to Joey (Braeden Lemasters), a full-time jazz enthusiast and part-time player. He and his small unit of like-minded bosom buddies, Archie, Bud and Louie (Uriah Shelton, Isaac Jay and Dylan Riley Snyder, respectively), fall firmly in the “outcast” category of the 1950s’ societal rankings (adolescent edition). It’s ’59, to be precise, so it’s that post-Elvis, pre-British Invasion era of music when rock and roll had the culture by the collar, and jazz was already “your father’s music.” During a game of poker, Joey and his pals hear on the radio that Pope Dixon (the late, great, gravely Reg E. Cathey) will be in town tonight, and it just so happens that Dixon is Joey’s favorite musician. He talks his friends into forsaking their hopes of getting laid—however unlikely those hopes were to begin with—and braving the Los Angeles nightscape to see his musical hero perform live. As the group stumbles from nightclub to nightclub, barely missing Pope every time, it quickly becomes clear that the boys may be chasing a fantasy.
Even though the photography is bathed in a soft glow, as only a memory laced with longing and distorted by time can be, this coming-of-age odyssey has an unshakable sense of verisimilitude. You first notice it in the relationship between the boys, and it’s from here that the rest of the film’s credibility is cultivated. Their banter and ball-busting, no matter how cutting it is, has that hidden quality of admiration, as if they’re constantly testing each other’s loyalty by seeing how well they can take a punch. Because this strong, believable unity is established, it makes the external forces that eventually splinter the group feel all the more powerful—it’s from these external forces that the boys gain their first sense of individuality.
“…the pathos never feels forced, but, instead, inevitable.”
But it’s Joey’s story at the forefront. His search for Pope is like so many protagonists’ search for an object of interest: the final destination is the least significant destination. Director, Gregory Caruso, pulls off something impressive by making Joey such a sympathetic character, without overusing sympathy to soften his character into saccharine mush—a trap many creatives fall into. As Joey’s story unfolds, the pathos never feels forced, but, instead, inevitable. The scene in which he confesses his real reason for seeking out Pope is potent storytelling, because it’s a moment that’s been earned through Caruso’s steady characterization and Lemasters’ quiet performance that effortlessly communicates the inner struggle of a young man scrambling around in the dark, looking for a light switch.
In the spirit of context, I’m not a fan of the coming-of-age genre. Therefore, it should say something that I found Flock of Four to be an emotionally honest portrait of hero worship and, to quote another jazz lover from the ‘50s, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time.” The film avoids the genre’s compulsion to worship youth’s naivety, opting instead to utilize the inherent drama of its slow exorcism.
Flock of Four (2018) Directed by Gregory Caruso. Written by Gregory Caruso and Michael Nader. Starring Braeden Lemasters, Uriah Shelton, Isaac Jay, Dylan Riley Snyder, Shane Harper, Coco Jones, Nadji Jeter, Connor Paolo, Gatlin Green and Reg E. Cathey.
4 out of 5