Everybody knows a guy like Pep: a fella with a little too much time on his hands, a little too much enthusiasm for violence, and a little too much insecurity regarding his own self-worth. He’s the type of friend that’s great to have around should you end up in a bar fight – hell, that’s half the reason he went out drinking with you in the first place – but, while he talks a good game about “doing some good” in the community, he’s, at best, a little bit misguided and, at worst, a bigger problem than any of the ones he claims to want to solve.
Pep (Simon Cassidy) is the central character of writer/director Darren Bolton’s Small Town Hero, and as the title suggests, he fancies himself an amateur crimefighter in the small English village that he calls home. There’s a particular state of mind that’s likely to lead someone down that path, and the film nails both the obvious and subtle aspects of that personality type to an almost disturbing degree. A comedy/drama constructed in a faux-documentary style, Small Town Hero mixes low-key humor with the same kind of pathological male aggression and casual brutality that Martin Scorsese’s films often explore. It’s probably overselling things to call the film Taxi Driver by way of Christopher Guest, but if the steel-toed combat boot fits…
“…sit down, shut up, and watch where these two talented guys go from here.”
At any rate, Small Town Hero opens with one of its most unabashedly comedic scenes, a pre-credits sit-down interview with Pep in which he excitedly outlines his vision for the soon-to-open village cinema: cell phones confiscated at the door, crunchy snacks strictly forbidden, absolutely no talking during the show; in his words, “Sit down, shut up, and WATCH THE FUCKING FILM!” Aside from eliciting an enthusiastic “Attaboy!” from the dedicated cinephiles in the audience, this brief scene reveals a lot of Pep’s defining traits: he’s undeniably charismatic, extremely foul-mouthed, overflowing with what he thinks are great ideas, and prone to flying off the handle at a moment’s notice.
The film picks up with Pep explaining his early forays into vigilantism, prompted by the loss of his job and, of course, a drunken conversation with a shopowner pal at the local pub. At first, the villagers seem to support their hometown’s ersatz Batman (Pep, by the way, is a huge fan of the Caped Crusader), and, admittedly, some of his work – like plastering “I Park Like a Prick” stickers on illegally parked vehicles – seems pretty righteous. But, by the time he joins (and almost immediately sets about taking over) the local neighborhood watch group, Pep’s approach starts to border on the fascistic, and he spirals further out of control as the town’s support begins to wane.
In the meantime, Pep struggles to connect with his estranged seven-year-old son (Harrison Ainslie) – who he seems to sincerely care about – and the boy’s mom (Millie Reeves), who’s pregnant with another guy’s child and has an understandably low tolerance for Pep’s bullshit. There’s also a rumor of a pedophile lurking in town, the investigation of which Pep sees as a perfect opportunity to prove his worth – even if it means violently harassing folks like quiet, single guy Patrick (Johnny Vivash) for giving off even the slightest whiff of suspicion.
Cassidy is on-camera for a very large chunk of Small Town Hero‘s running time, and the performance is stunningly good and surprisingly nuanced. Pep’s tics, his shifts between projecting good intentions and posturing aggressively, his self-aggrandizing declarations that betray deep-seated self-esteem issues – all seem entirely real, the products of well-realized psychology rather than storytelling contrivance. That’s what makes it possible for viewers to sympathize with the character; he’s almost never made out to be a total lout or a monster, and we’re torn throughout between laughing at him, rooting for him, feeling sorry for him, and fearing what he’s capable of. Even late in the film, when Pep’s at his most outwardly sociopathic, there’s still a disarming moment or two of heartfelt sincerity to be had, and Cassidy sells the sensitivity just as well as he does the violent outbursts. He’s so naturalistic, in both the amped-up moments and the quieter ones, that the film – unlike so many phony “found-footage” movies – often really does feel like the non-fiction work that it mimics (Bolton has a great feel for the rhythms and conventions of the documentary format, as well).
That style is so effective, and the central performance is so good, that it’s a little disappointing that Small Town Hero never really goes anywhere that someone who’s seen this type of film before wouldn’t, right from the get-go, expect it to. The narrative arc and the individual story beats are pretty obvious throughout, and the conclusion is decidedly of the “foregone” type; the film’s big-picture ideas about vigilantism and masculinity aren’t exactly groundbreaking, either. Nevertheless, Small Town Hero is often startlingly powerful as a character study, and it represents both an assured feature debut for Bolton and a riveting showcase for Cassidy. It ever-so-aggressively demands that viewers sit down, shut up, and watch where these two talented guys go from here.
Small Town Hero (2019) Written and directed by Darren Bolton. Starring Simon Cassidy, Millie Reeves, Johnny Vivash, Moir Leslie, Joe Evans, Harrison Ainslie
4 stars out of 5