Writer-director Javier Reyna’s Regionrat, based on Richard Laskowski’s novel of the same name, is set in 1995. Ray (Connor Williams) has been living in Seattle, with his older sister, as infractions with the law over underage drinking and breaking curfew have taken a toll on his parents. He goes to a payphone and calls his mom. He begs her to let him live with her, as these past six months have been unbearable for him, but she refuses, citing Ray’s behavioral issues. He then calls his father, who is also hesitant to let Ray come back, but eventually relents. So it is, that Ray returns to his small hometown in northwest Indiana, which is part of ‘The Region’- a vast industrial complex that is considered part of the greater Chicago metropolitan area. As Ray navigates his senior year of high school, he reconnects with old friends Gabe (Jeff Harlow) and Brian ‘The Brain’ (Shon Dmario Evans).
One day, Brian picks Ray up for school and meets Erin (Natassia Halabi) and Milada (Samantha Hodges). Erin and Ray have chemistry, but she is with Colin (Grafton Doyle), who is extremely jealous. Later on, they then run into each at a party and rumors start swirling around school that they hooked up. Now Colin and his friends are searching for the sarcastic, drug toking teen to exact revenge upon. Ray is trying to keep his head above water and make sure everyone knows the truth… that nothing happened!
The film adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Prisoner Of Second Avenue opens up with the lead character, Mel, in the very beginning stages of a nervous breakdown. The audience is given no baseline understanding of who Mel is or why they should care about this man’s problems because he is already degrading from the first second. Mel comes across as nothing more than a shrieking, taxing person demanding to be given special treatment because he exists. This keeps the audience at a distance because a reason to give a damn isn’t present. Regionrat’s first ten minutes are similarly excruciating to sit through. The audience’s introduction to Ray is that his parents want nothing to do with him because of his caustic behavior. The audience knows that Ray is difficult and nothing else, so his parents’ reaction seems reasonable, if harsh. Why, then, should the audience care about Ray or his plight?
“…the fallout from it, morph Regionrat into an urgent and poignant motion picture…”
If Reyna started the movie with Brian picking up Ray, and his subsequent meeting of Erin and the movie would have lost nothing (occurring after the admittedly cool opening credit sequence). In fact, it would have strengthened the film significantly. The quiet, smart-mouthed boy who loves his friends is a much more engaging introduction, and the audience wouldn’t have to fight to find empathy for the character and movie. Plus, most, if not all, of the information gleaned in those early moments is repeated elsewhere in film, so important context will not go missing.
Luckily, after the first ten minutes, everything about the writing and characterization improves drastically. Ray gives several voiceovers about The Region, his school, and what he remembers before moving away, which adds dry wit and elucidates the audience to his way of seeing the world. The dialogue is refreshingly frank in how the friends discuss drug use, sex, and their views of life beyond high school. Ray runs into an old flame, Ari (Jeanne Kietzmann), at a coffee shop and in the midst of telling him she got HIV through a blood transfusion, she offers a quid pro quo arrangement, as they both need favors. Ray needs Colin off his back, and Ari needs to tell Tim (Harry Holmes) about her diagnosis. Ray calls Ari out for this, as he owes her nothing. It is a truthful and believable conversation.
Directorially, Reyna is considerably more assured than in his writing capabilities, as even the beginning of the movie, pointlessly awkward though it may be, looks fantastic. Ray wanders through the rain to a payphone as the camera intensely focuses on him. The lighting and cinematography convey real grit that encapsulates our young protagonists’ desperation perfectly.
Brian, Gabe, Ray, and Erin are all hanging out in a garage when the door opens from the outside. Car headlights brightly illuminate the characters, as their smiles harden into concern. Colin enters the picture to beat up Ray. Where this sequence goes, and the fallout from it, morph Regionrat into an urgent and poignant motion picture.
“…sharp and clever, encapsulating the carefree attitude of youth truthfully…”
None of this would be possible if it weren’t for the exceptional acting from the entire cast. Connor Williams imbues Ray with a sensitivity that his wisecracking, tough-talking front can’t hide. Halabi is excellent as the sexy but duplicitous Erin, making her mood swings and perpetual lying feel like a natural extension of the character. As Gabe, Harlow is fun, and Shon Dmario Evans is especially endearing as Brian.
Walking away with every scene she’s in though is Samantha Hodges as the uber-Christian Milada. She is a rational voice that even when she isn’t listened to, expresses care for friends and trusts them to make the right decisions (eventually). At the house party, where the rumors first started, she is genuinely pleased to see Ray there, despite her annoyance at all the weed the friends had smoked just before she initially met him. Her ending speech to Ray is a killer and is delivered brilliantly.
Regionrat’s first ten minutes are an awkward mess, leaving the audience to ponder why they should care for the lead protagonist. Once the movie establishes all the main characters, it perks right up. The dialogue is sharp and clever, encapsulating the carefree attitude of youth truthfully. The directing absorbs the viewer into the dramatic arcs, and the casting is pitch perfect, so flaws and all, Regionrat is a compelling coming of age story.
Regionrat (2018) Directed by Javier Reyna. Written by Javier Reyna. Starring Connor Williams, Natassia Halabi, Shon Dmario Evans, Jeff Harlow, Samantha Hodges, Harry Holmes.