Directorial debuts are almost always exciting, as we get to witness the genesis of something, even if we’re not sure what it is. Sean Hartofilis is definitely on to something with Beach Pillows, a playful dramedy about coming-of-age when you are already well into adulthood. Although the movie brings to mind other films and directorial styles more often than it should (the Wes Anderson influences weigh a bit too heavy, even down to the score), it’s a quirky, memorable tale with a unique cast of characters who win the audience over in the end.
Morgan Midwood (Geoffrey Arend) takes center stage as both an everyman and a lovable nobody whose girlfriend makes a cuckold of him early on in the film. Beach Pillows follows his journey from zero to hero (or anti-hero), as a series of unfortunate events in his personal life ultimately inspire him to take some risks and pursue his talents as a writer.
Arend delivers a fair-to-middling performance, but his kooky sidekick is a bit more remarkable. Vincent Kartheiser plays Nick, the mischievous bro-type who’s got just enough creative energy to make his character interesting (he’s got this great idea for pillows made from beach towels, for example), but not so much so that we mistake him for the ambitious type. This distinction is important because Beach Pillows has a huge elephant in the room—Pete Campbell from Mad Men. It is impossible to completely divorce Kartheiser’s Nick from Kartheiser’s Campbell (especially when—at a certain point—he finds himself sporting some serious post-brawl facial bruises, and one can’t help but think of a certain scene with Lane Pryce), but the actor ultimately succeeds in proving that he’s no one-trick pony.
With a strong supportive cast (including Annette O’Toole and Richard Schiff), and earnest attempts to resist the cliché, Beach Pillows works in its simplicity. Indeed, it could be critiqued for this very simplicity. Really, nothing especially notable happens—there’s a fantastic drunken bar fight, but we’ve seen such wonders before. The friendship between Midwood and Nick is seemingly typical, and this isn’t necessarily a love-at-first frame experience. However, it must be said that the small surprises carry enough weight for the story to work, and the welfare of the characters becomes increasingly important to the viewers as the story unfolds.
Things do wrap up a bit too nicely for the characters at the film’s conclusion, but it’s a huge relief and—a credit to Hartofilis as the writer and director—that Midwood ultimately does not get the girl. More to the point, there really isn’t a “the girl” to get, which is refreshing. If Hartofilis can continue to work against the obvious in his future works, and take more narrative risks, viewers will have every reason to greatly anticipate his sophomore effort.
Director: Sean Hartofilis
Writer: Sean Hartofilis
Starring: Geoffrey Arend, Vincent Kartheiser, Annette O’Toole
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.