Go See It: Palace is playing at Nō Studios on Friday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door. Assistant director Joe Shea and set photographer Jose Morales will attend for a post-film Q&A. Read more about John Ridley and Nō Studios.
About an hour into Palace, filmmaker Andrew Paul Davis’s bittersweet homage to rural Indiana, the camera pans to college student Alexa’s feet, shod in strappy sandals that show off dark, moody toenail polish. Her nurse has just complimented the sandals, before taking her blood pressure but after following up about Alexa’s bygone suicidal thoughts.
“There just comes a point in March when I’m like, ‘It’s springtime,’” says Alexa, played by Emily Sweet. “But…it always gets cold again.” She delivers the line with the resignation of a true late-spring Midwesterner, and in that moment, the specific expands to the general: In life, it does always get cold again. Especially in the Midwest.
“Yeah, I hate to be the one to tell ya,” the nurse responds, “but you’re in Indiana.”
This emotional boomerang mirrors the narrative trajectory of Palace, a quiet film that could have been voted “talks the least, says the most” in a yearbook superlative contest. It’s an ensemble film that passes the story baton between characters as they cross paths at the local watering hole, where beer is served by the pitcher and there’s always someone more racist just a few bar stools down.
In the tradition of interlocking ensemble giants Love Actually and Babel, Palace‘s three main characters’ storylines are kept largely separate, though secondary characters recur and overlap in surprising ways — at times humorously (the “Will it give me diarrhea?” lady was particularly amusing) and other times as punches to the gut. Its interest in the most minor of characters is reminiscent of the acclaimed “New York, I Love You” episode of Master of None; it’s High Maintenance with Hoosiers.
We begin with Chris (Todd Bruno), a not-recovering alcoholic, mechanic and hapless white supremacist who spreads messages of white pride via YouTube to minimal acclaim. We see him thumbs-down a comment calling him a “racist fuck” on a video wherein he nearly chips a tooth as he struggles to rip a confederate flag in half (he’s not that kind of white supremacist, he maintains).
Then we see him at an AA meeting, before downing beers with the lonely barfly Chuck (Joe Martyn Ricke), a recent widower with mounting medical bills and two estranged daughters. Chuck later interacts with Alexa (of the wishful-thinking sandals) and her two friends and classmates who form an aspiring hip-hop trio that eventually takes their pretty sick beats on the road. Alexa, meanwhile, struggles with mental health and the decision to come out to her parents.
Palace displays a tenderness to its characters, and perhaps an even deeper tenderness for its setting, Grant County, Indiana. Filmmaker Davis, who directed, produced and wrote the screenplay, and also plays one of Alexa’s bandmates, went to school in Indiana and now calls Bloomington home. Though raised in south Florida, Davis’s visual sensibilities betray a familiarity with and reverence for the oft-overlooked flyover country.
“Everyone deserves to see their backyard on the big screen,” his website philosophy declares. Though Grant County, Indiana, is not Milwaukee’s backyard, the leafless trees, snow-dusted cornfields and desolate gas stations will be familiar sights to Wisconsinites. (Heck, there’s even a Grant County, Wisconsin.)
If you hear “slice of life,” “character study,” or “mumblecore” and want to run for the hills, you should probably double-knot your shoes. Not a whole lot happens on the surface in Palace, but no character emerges unscathed, either. The genius of Palace is not in its sweeping conclusions or high-stakes intersections, but in the way small actions are imbued with heavy meaning: Chuck dropping a twenty on the bar even after losing an arm-wrestling bet for tab payment rights says more about his character in one frame than any single line of dialogue could. Chris’s eventual cracked-toenail comeuppance is the kind of poetic justice that falls like a feather and lands like an anvil (on his foot…get it?).
While some scenes seem to drive the characters instead of vice versa, and the bar at times feels like a magician’s hat with an improbably generous supply of rabbits for the denizens of Grant County to interact with — and while Todd Bruno’s affable racist Chris seems entirely too polite to back up his rhetoric with any kind of alt-right gold standard — Palace is an impressive debut from director and screenwriter Andrew Paul Davis, featuring committed performances from all three leads, beautifully bleak cinematography and, like I said, some pretty sick beats.