Eugene Ioannou is a young filmmaker with a very bright future – or, at least, that is what I’m predicting based on his astonishing short drama “Off Season.” This remarkable production offers one of the subtlest yet devastating views of monomania that I’ve seen in many years.
Set in a working class New Jersey neighborhood, “Off Season” focuses on a couple whose respective obsessions threaten their barely-started relationship. Mara is a real estate agent who seems a little too eager to be in a relationship. She has already rushed her new boyfriend Donnie into bed without knowing him at any great length, and she has arranged for him to join her at an engagement party. For his part, Donnie has channeled his entire life into the pursuit of bodybuilding. He explains to Mara that he quit his job as a police officer because his loner personality did not fit in with the camaraderie of his fellow cops, and it appears that his full time is mostly spent in a solitary weight lifting regimen at a dingy gym.
Needless to say, the XXL-sized Donnie stands out in his gym, and he is hustled by a rather sketchy character that wants to serve as his Svengali and turn him into a bodybuilding champion. Pressured by his new mentor, Donnie reneges on attending the engagement party in order to network at a bodybuilding event. When he finally reconnects with Mara, it is clear their parallel obsessions will never overlap.
The beauty of “Off Season” lies in how the characters try to conceal their insincerity and fears. The emotionally needy Mara barely acknowledges her insecurity in being unmarried and it becomes clear that she is using Donnie as a prop for the upcoming party, so she can snag some attention away from the bride-to-be. For his part, Donnie looks out at the world with an uneasy agitation, and his lack of comfort is skillfully depicted in a montage where he tries on a series of shirts in the hope that his clothing will not call too much attention to his powerful physique. His only calm comes at the gym, and Ioannou shrewdly films these scenes in a stark monochrome, as if Donnie did a reversal of “The Wizard of Oz” and escaped from a dreary color world into a black-and-white fantasyland.
A film with this degree of careful intelligence requires talent in front of the camera, and Ioannou is blessed with his leads. Sharon Maguire plumbs Mara’s depths and brings forth an aching portrait of a lonely woman who never realizes her own self-worth. The character’s agony is all the more painful because Maguire is drop-dead gorgeous – her tragedy is that she cannot see the beauty and charm that is apparent to anyone with ocular abilities.
As Donnie, Robert Youells – a bodybuilding champion turned actor – has no problems lifting the heavy gym weights, but his ability to carry his Donnie’s uneasiness is a remarkable feat. His physical performance is astonishing – away from the gym, he holds Donnie in awkward body language and casts long, silent glances at anyone that he perceives to be hostile. And in the film’s climax, Youells’ Donnie finally reveals his inner thoughts with a vituperative insouciance that leaves a brutal gash. It is an extraordinary performance.
Special kudos are in order to supporting actors Mark Vincent as Donnie’s self-appointed mentor and Gregg Valentino as a sleazy tournament promoter who tosses around promises of grandeur as if they were New Year’s confetti.
“Off Season” is beginning its trek of the film festival circuit, and hopefully it will find a wider audience. It clearly deserves to be seen – this is one of the year’s best short films.