The 1990s didn’t happen all that long ago, but thanks to the exhausting craziness of the last few years, they’re a decade that lately seems to be rushing headlong into the very distant past. Fear not, though: nostalgia for that comparatively easygoing era hangs heavy over writer/director/star Olivia Gropp’s darkly comedic Traders. And that’s not an unwelcomed thing.
The narrative is lean and mean. Gropp plays “The Girl,” who totes a crate of used vinyl to the record shop to unload on proprietor Dean (Geno Bisconte). When she arrives, seemingly well after normal business hours, she encounters not Dean, but a shifty, nervous guy credited only as “The Young Man” (Brian Dole). He seems decidedly displeased to be bothered by her. What The Girl doesn’t know, at first, is that she’s caught The Young Man at a particularly inconvenient time: he just murdered Dean in the backroom and was in the process of mopping up the crime scene. It doesn’t take much to clue her in that something fishy is going on, though she’s got a few dirty little secrets of her own to reveal before the final credits roll on this 9-minute narrative.
The record store setting of Traders is one of the places – along with coffee houses and independent bookstores – that Gen Xers and older millennials used to frequent in pursuit of culture and, through some kind of weird and forgotten osmosis, coolness. Given the setting, it’s a little surprising that the film’s 90s-era cinematic touchstone is not the expected High Fidelity or Empire Records. Instead, it’s the once-flourishing genre of irreverent, Tarantino-inspired crime flicks that used to share space on the video store shelves with softcore erotic thrillers, quirky festival darlings, and trashy low-budget romps from the likes of Troma and Full Moon Entertainment.
“…she’s caught The Young Man at a particularly inconvenient time: he just murdered Dean…”
Gropp looks far too young to have caught those wannabes back when they were popular. Nevertheless, she pulls off a pretty convincing approximation of the droll hipster style, casual immorality, and detached attitude toward extreme violence that defined them. That formerly caustic stuff somehow feels so innocent, now, and there’s something very charming about seeing it realized with such playfulness and enthusiasm by a young filmmaker.
As a showcase for its writer, director, and star, Traders leaves an impression with its hard-boiled dialogue, blasé bloodletting, and lively needle-drops (female-fronted 80s pop-metal act Smashed Gladys gets a respectful tribute). Gropp and Dole both nail the sardonic, disaffected vibe of the era, as well as the occasional lapses into manic, violent self-expression that often punctuated such tongue-in-cheek cinematic crime sagas. Thanks to the use of fractured chronology, comedian and podcaster Bisconte thankfully gets to play more than just a moldering dead guy.
The one disappointing and rather baffling choice is the complete lack of period-relevant pop culture references in the dialogue. One might have expected these characters, surrounded at all times by music memorabilia, to at least once or twice name-drop Sonic Youth or Public Enemy or something, but alas, that Linklater/Tarantino/Crowe chattiness and cultural savvy is nowhere to be found. On the other hand, Traders does make an effort to suggest some larger goings-on outside the margins of its slim story, perhaps a cutthroat world of vinyl-dealing criminals in which rare Japanese-only Guided By Voices EPs are something worth killing over.
That said, Traders still feels like enough as-is, a winning slice of period pastiche that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Nostalgia, much like Surge or Zima, can pretty quickly turn from sweet to sickly if you overdo it, and Gropp seems primed to successfully move on to other things from here. For the moment, though, this sharp, small film is a nice throwback to the days when MTV still played music videos – and humanity’s darker impulses were more likely to be humorously rendered on-screen rather than showcased with a depressing frequency in day-to-day life.
"…leaves an impression with its hard-boiled dialogue, blasé bloodletting, and lively needle-drops..."