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Storytelling   B+

Fine Line Features

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Todd Solondz
Writer: Todd Solondz
Cast: Selma Blair, Leo Fitzpatrick, Robert Wisdom, Paul Giamatti, Mark Webber, John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Lupe Ontiveros, Noah Fleiss, Jonathan Osser.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

In Storytelling, a pretty college student named Vi (Selma Blair) shares a story with her fiction writing class that's greeted with repulsion and disbelief. One girl huffs, "Why do you have to write about such ugly people?" Her peers say that her story is hateful, disgusting, and so shocking that it isn't believable. But every word of it is true. It's not fiction at all -- or is it? When Vi insists that her story really happened, her professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), says that everything becomes fiction once words are put down on paper. Maybe he's right. After all, the truth is subjective -- not only to the storyteller, but also to the reader.

Writer-director Todd Solondz knows this. He faced similar outraged response over his previous film, the shocking tragicomedy Happiness, which focused on a bevy of characters most movies wouldn't dare give a cursory glance, including a child-molesting pedophile. Was Solondz just trying to shock people? Was he exploiting his characters? Was the film mean-spirited and downright misanthropic? It depends on who you ask.

Storytelling asks questions, but it doesn't claim to have the answers. It wants us to think for ourselves, to question why we feel a certain way about a character or subject, and Solondz pushes every button at his disposal to get reactions. In "Fiction," the first of two stories in the film, a black college professor coerces a white student into sex -- a scene that's brutal even if we don't see (only hear) what's going on. We don't see it because the MPAA forced alterations to the scene in order to secure an R rating (lest it be stamped with the dreadful NC-17) and Solondz (under contract by Fine Line to get an R) chose to put a big red box over the action, pointing a finger at censorship. Take that, Jack Valenti.

In "Non-Fiction," which takes up most of the film's 87 minutes, a geeky shoe salesman named Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) decides to make a documentary focusing on high school kids in America. Toby finds his main subject in dope-headed high school senior Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a slacker not interested in college but who dreams of being a TV talk show host like his hero Conan O'Brien. The Livingstons are like a warped, dysfunctional version of the stereotypical TV sitcom family. There's the overbearing father (John Goodman), the clueless mother (Julie Hagerty), the insanely smart kid brother (Jonathan Osser), the jock brother (Noah Fleiss) with the cheerleader girlfriend, and the overworked, underappreciated family maid (Lupe Ontiveros) from El Salvador.

When Toby shows some of the documentary to his editor (played by Run Lola Run's Franka Potente), she accuses him of exploiting and making fun of his subjects. He's flabbergasted: "But I love my subjects!" While that may be true, he (unwittingly) turns them into objects of exploitation merely by pointing a camera at them. If we're to consider Toby Oxman as Solondz's alter ego, what exactly is Solondz saying? That exploitation is in the eye of the beholder? When someone accuses Solondz of misanthropy, maybe it says more about them than it does about Solondz.

But it's not that simple.

There are no easy answers to the questions raised in Storytelling. It's a risky film and those who hated Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness will probably hate this one, too. They may hate this one even more, since it may be tough to find a single sympathetic character. One of Solondz's strengths in the past has been his ability to humanize characters that most people wouldn't want to associate with in real life. I never thought of Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness as mean-spirited, but Storytelling is on the razor's edge. It's meaner, sharper, but it still has shreds of humanity, especially in the performances from Mark Webber, Lupe Ontiveros, Selma Blair, and the wonderful John Goodman, who lets humanity shine through playing the most bullying of fathers.

It seems that this is a movie that one will grow to appreciate more with subsequent viewings -- or that one will grow to hate more passionately, as the case may be. But I know that it intrigued me, it disturbed me, it made me laugh (even at things I probably shouldn't be), and its spiteful undercurrent of sadness got under my skin. It's a tough film to pin down and a comedy of the bleakest variety. While Storytelling will surely be subject to the same attacks as his previous films, I'm glad we have a filmmaker like Todd Solondz to keep us on our toes.

Review published 02.08.2002.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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