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Shonzi is Shaun. Shaun loves Fonzie, thus the nickname “Shonzi.” Shonzi is a nuisance. But Shonzi is … unwell. “Slow” is the word his family uses. “Developmentally delayed” is what the filmmakers say. The truth is that Shonzi choked on his own umbilical cord when he was born, and his brain just doesn’t function like other people’s. As played by writer/director Linas Phillips, Shonzi is imaginative, loud, and horny as hell. Combine that with his complete lack of societal grace, and you’re left with one of the most cringing film characters in recent memory.
But, awkward or not, Shonzi is a meticulously crafted creation. Phillips’ previous career saw him working with special-needs children, and it’s obvious here that his time caring for and collaborating with those kids fed into his detailed, empathetic character work, which oscillates between gentle whimsy and pure repulsion in the span of seconds. His go-to defense is to guilt others for his condition, and he follows any gaffe with an aggressive assertion that he was “just kidding.”
It’s sometimes incredibly ugly, but what Phillips makes clear is that Shonzi operates on his own internal logic and, as such, isn’t cruel so much as out-of-step. As Phillips demonstrated in last year’s Manson Family Vacation, where he played a modern-day follower of Charles Manson’s philosophies, he has a knack for navigating the nastiness and vulnerability of societal outcasts. And just like Manson Family Vacation, Rainbow Time centers around themes of family and how important it is for us to love the unlovable.
Rainbow Time opens on Shonzi’s brother, Todd (Timm Sharp), and a small party with Shonzi and their dad, Peter (a quietly soulful Tobin Bell), that serves to introduce Todd’s new girlfriend, Lindsay (Melanie Lynskey). The couple’s relationship first bloomed while she was still married to an abusive ex (Jay Duplass, in a blistering cameo), and now Todd and Lindsay are grappling with the awkwardness and peculiarities that come with navigating a new relationship in middle age. Sex is a particularly uncomfortable topic for the two, so it’s no surprise that Todd is uneasy about introducing Lindsay to the sex-obsessed Shonzi, who wastes no time commenting on their “chemistry” and going in for uncomfortably long hugs.
Still, Phillips is sure to demonstrate that an affection certainly exists between Todd and Shonzi. Todd, for example, gamely plays a part in his brother’s short films, in which Shonzi carries an uzi and spouts halting one-liners from behind oversized aviator sunglasses. But when he catches Shonzi filming an intimate moment between he and Lindsay, he’s forced to confront both his own role in Shonzi’s development, as well as his own sexual hang-ups. Lindsay, meanwhile, copes by hilariously trying to impart the tenets of feminist thought to a sweet but clueless Shonzi.
Rainbow Time was produced by the Duplass Brothers, and it bears many of the duo’s stylistic hallmarks. Character is always emphasized over story, and Phillips’ camera routinely favors the intimacy of tight shots over tableaux. This benefits the unique dynamic of Todd and Lindsay’s relationship, a fragile, uneasy thing of the sort that’s rarely explored in films indie or otherwise. And despite the presence of so many queasy themes and complicated personalities, humor is a constant touchstone, a reminder that nearly any tragedy is laced with humor both cathartic and very, very inappropriate. Sharp and Lynskey navigate this space with grace, folding awkwardness and trepidation into every warm embrace or strained confession. Like the Duplass’ best characters, they’re wounded but functional, a mess of desires and contradictions.
And as with most Duplass-produced films, Rainbow Time perhaps ambles a bit too awkwardly into its ending. But, if it weren’t already clear, this is a messy movie about messy people, unique in both its character dynamics and worldview. Phillips has been making movies for a while now, but Rainbow Time is by far his most fully realized, thanks in no small part to his bizarre, inimitable central performance. Like everyone else in his life, you’ll hate Shonzi before you love him. But, sooner or later, you will love him.