There’s something kind of magical about director Saad Qureshi’s low-budget experimental narrative feature A Great Lamp, but you do have to squint a little bit to see it.
The film, at times, feels like the kind of rambling, twee, semi-improvisational indie fare that was en vogue at the end of the last century, featuring oddball characters, lots of dreamy philosophizing, and just the faintest wisp of a story to carry it from beginning to end.
And yet, ever-so-lovingly tucked within the folds of its childlike whimsy and low-stakes meandering, there are moments of profound sadness and sensitivity that leave you absolutely blindsided, overflowing with empathy that’s conjured up almost out of nowhere. Yes, indeed – kind of magical.
Set in some unnamed small city in North Carolina, A Great Lamp centers on three characters in their early 20s who all might be best described as lovable but lost. Max (Max Wilde) – long-haired, dotted with piercings, and permanently clad in a bohemian-looking skirt – lopes around town, wheat-pasting flyers on every available surface. Each one, rather than advertising a business or a band, is a heartfelt tribute to Max’s late grandmother, featuring a photo of her smiling face and some key factoids about her life (such her favorite Cheesecake Factory entree).
“…Max’s efforts to celebrate his grandma’s memory via well-intentioned vandalism…”
Then there’s Howie (Spencer Bang), far away from his hometown and armed with a set of binoculars, who giddily “recruits” strangers to join him in watching an impending rocket launch. He’s got an infectious naivety about him, though his bubbly personality masks a secret that’s eating him up inside.
And, finally, Gene (Steven Maier), perhaps the most conventional sad-sack of the trio, drifts and broods his way through the day, too ashamed and afraid to tell his dad that he’s quit the office job that the old man secured for him.
Much of the film tags along on the episodic non-adventures of Max and Howie, who sort of “meet cute” in the middle of their mutual wanderings and quickly become all but inseparable. The pair goes fishing with crude stick-and-string poles; they ramp up Max’s efforts to celebrate his grandma’s memory via well-intentioned vandalism; they pluck pennies out of a wishing well and, in a rather adorable touch, put them up to their ears to hear the wishes that their owners placed on them. The friendship that develops between these two is unique and quite charming; there’s an innocence and tenderness to their interactions that’s hardly – if ever – seen shared by adult male characters onscreen, and it’s often quite lovely to behold. A Great Lamp‘s artsier, more eccentric qualities can occasionally get to be a bit much, but this particular element works, and, more often than not, it works extremely well. Sadly, though, all of that does leave poor Gene largely cut off from the rest of the film (he shares no scenes with Max and Howie), and although Maier turns in a well-realized performance, the character’s lack of connection to the more central goings-on makes him feel somewhat stranded and out-of-place.
“… A Great Lamp‘s offbeat wavelength are likely to find it pretty damn endearing when all is said and done.”
Of course, what does and does not belong in a film as uninhibited by narrative and structural conventions as A Great Lamp isn’t all that important to consider; this is a hang-out movie, a ramshackle and folksy sort of thing that isn’t really trying to follow a recognizable path, anyway. It’s got time for pretty, pen-and-ink-style animation and the occasional musical interlude, and the entire thing is lovingly scuffed up by faux film-grain effects that look as if they might have been drawn in MS Paint. Again, these are the sort of eccentricities that are bound to leave certain audiences running screaming from the theater, but those who can tune in to A Great Lamp‘s offbeat wavelength are likely to find it pretty damn endearing when all is said and done.
That’s especially true in light of a series of title cards that appear just before the film’s closing credits, which offer a bit of explanation as to where it came from and why it was made. This isn’t a normal thing for a movie to do (especially one that’s as open to interpretation as A Great Lamp can be), but the sentiments expressed there are so perfectly of a piece with the rest of the film that their inclusion feels somehow just right. It’s one final little grace note that perfectly encapsulates what A Great Lamp is – unusual but heartfelt, imperfect but undeniably special.
A Great Lamp (2019) Directed by Saad Qureshi. Starring Max Wilde, Spencer Bang, Steven Maier, Netta Green, Julian Semilian, Laura Semilian, Smokey, Spaz, Connie Stewart. A Great Lamp screened at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.
7.5 out of 10