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In writer-director Gregory Kohn’s Northeast, we watch Will (David Call) hang out on the streets and in the cramped apartments of New York: We watch him eat an apple as daytime traffic swooshes between him and the 16mm camera. We watch him smoke a cigarette against the fuzzy city lights at night. We watch him stare out a window into the lemon-colored light of dawn. We even watch his space heater warm up with an electric glow and buzz.

Although just 76 minutes, Northeast is padded with enough of these bouts of navel-gazing to make one wonder whether the material would have been better suited as a short. But the answer is no, for as irritating as his exposition-less cinema vérité style is—the grainy, hand-held camera serves as an additional character whose ability to maintain a stable image declines in direct correlation to Will and his friends’ level of inebriation—Kohn’s thematically autobiographical script builds to an emotional impression that, rather than being unique, is notable in being increasingly universal.

Educated, unemployed and relatively new to the city, Will spends his days wandering the streets, largely alone. He has a roommate with whom he engages in awkwardly polite conversation. He goes to parties where he doesn’t remember other guests’ names (we don’t either) while anonymous girls flirt with and fuss over him. He hooks up with women for one-night stands, painfully aware of how cliché he sounds when he says, “I’ll call you. I will.”

At the halfway mark, it feels like we’re going nowhere, and it’s hard to tell why we should care about this aimless playboy. But in a metropolis where it’s not unusual to run into an acquaintance on the street, Will emanates a profound sense of loneliness. That’s what all these people are—acquaintances—and when his bike is stolen, he exclaims, “Somebody stole my fucking…” and trails off, for there’s no one for him to complain to, no one who gives a damn, anyway. (Facebook doesn’t play a role here, but its presence is certainly felt, as Will’s relationships feel more like online friendships than real-life ones.)

Cutting through the malaise is Molly (Eléonore Hendricks), a redheaded writer who gets his attention precisely because she turns him down. In the wake of this rejection, Will attempts to get serious, playing house with a friend-with-benefits and bedding an older woman. None of it’s quite the same as the real thing, though—settling down, getting a real job—which looks increasingly attractive as his friends find it, leaving him behind.

What’s so frustrating about this movie is also what ultimately makes it work: Everything about Will—his conversations, his relationships, his hoodie—is ordinary and superficial, and Kohn’s observer camera does little to convince us otherwise. There’s no dialogue or other description of the subtle transformation taking place inside our protagonist, so we can’t be faulted for assuming there isn’t one—until he makes a small, seemingly insignificant move: He borrows a car. He gets out of the city. He escapes and proactively goes after what he wants. Without all the nothingness that came before it, this something wouldn’t carry any of the weight or power it does.

Director: Gregory Kohn
Writer: Gregory Kohn
Starring: David Call, Eléonore Hendricks, Megan Tusing, Lauren Shannon, Laura Ford, Jason Selvig, Tate Ellington
Release Date: Jan. 11, 2012