Jac Cron’s Chestnut is undoubtedly more instructive than it is enjoyable. Instructive because it brings to the fore many of the dominant features of Gen Z gloom––aimless drifting, technological alienation, suppression of creativity, hook-up culture––and organizes them within a modern campus-movie structure. Relatively dull because there is little feeling or intelligence in its wallowing; no wit or humor in its dialogue; and no respite from the exhausting falsity underlying its theme, namely that being turned down by someone you just met at a bar can, or should, be raised to the level of universal angst.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the callow, twinkly-eyed Annie, who, in the week before leaving college, strikes up a friendship with servers Danny and Tyler. The trio meets nightly, mostly to exchange suggestive looks and banal what-are-you-drinking pleasantries in the hope that one of them will make a move. But the move never comes (at least not without the aid of some stimulant), and everyone remains tight-lipped and poker-faced about the whole affair––so much so that one wonders why they bother to see each other at all. There is no rapport between any of them, no sense of desire, and they have nothing in common other than the fact that they are all stuck in the same town. At least for the moment, that is, for Annie is about to start a job at Rothman Financing Group in California, having put aside her poetic aspirations to please her widower father.

On the whole, it is hard to see what all the fuss is about. The job at Rothman, at least judging by the booklet, is more than most college graduates could dream of, and the lack of any fear of financial insecurity (Annie’s father says she can quit the job if she doesn’t like it) is all too apparent. The relationships, too, fail to convey any frisson or friction. What, for example, does Annie see in the self-indulgent, temperamental Tyler? She is a crushing bore (sober or sozzled) who takes every opportunity to snipe and connive and is constantly coming out with howlers like “I’m just not done with it here yet.” Or how about Danny? He seems at first to be slightly more sensitive than Tyler––and even takes an interest in Annie’s dreadful poetry––but after he fails to make good on a promise, we see that he is just as dull and self-absorbed as his chain-smoking chum. 

Many of the problems are no doubt due to the script, which is tedious and rambling, but the performances do not help. Danny Ramirez and Rachel Keller rarely improve on their scanty parts, which permit them about as much movement––and indeed as much self-expression––as their cherished bar stools. Still, they fare considerably better than Natalia Dyer, whose Annie is overcoy, overcute, and increasingly tiresome, largely owing to the infuriating gesture on which she so often depends, and which goes something like this: (1) close eyes, (2) tilt head down, (3) smile shyly, (4) pause awkwardly, (5) shrug slightly, and (6) shake head and say “uh, yeah…,” as if to apologize for the earlier pause. Given how often her eyes are shut (this reviewer stopped counting after the dozenth time), is it any wonder she doesn’t see the inevitable heartbreak coming?

What is detectable of the film’s Everest-thin atmosphere mainly derives from the warmly lit bars in which the somnambulant Annie constantly appears to have awoken. They sometimes exude lust and possibility, thanks to cinematographer Matt Clegg, but their potential is never fully realized, since they are mostly used as spaces to storm out of or quietly drift into, or else as generic backgrounds for interminable small talk. Equally redundant are the continuities of color, angle, and focus, which, though carefully sustained, nevertheless follow the narrative in slow, dopey circles, such that they become mere cues––of the same dejected smiles and softcore temptations––rather than meanings, emotions, and textures of their own. In the end, one thinks of the rhythmically superior Columbus––that sumptuous structure of structures––under whose concrete branches Chestnut will surely fall and molder.

Chestnut opens in theaters on June 21.

Grade: C-

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