While working in a high-rise office, Maria Barbizan (Susanne Wuest) happens to glance out the window, and sees a hawk circling in the sky beyond, only for it to swoop headfirst into the glass before her, and to plummet out of sight. It is a spectacle, not to mention a loud thudding sound, which, mysteriously, her work colleague appears not even to notice. Stirred by this prodigious omen, within a day Maria has walked out of her job, left her husband and teenaged daughter, binned her phone, cards and money, and collapsed into a coin-operated massage chair at a mall, just waiting for something to happen. This is the opening sequence to Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’ feature debut Stanleyville (co-written with Rob Benvie), and it captures bilingual Maria at a spiritual, even existential crossroads in her life – and at the peak of her alienation – having removed herself from all her accumulated attachments, and opened herself to change.
At this moment, Maria is approached by an unusual man (Julian Richings) with an equally unusual name (Homunculus), although his obvious peculiarity is never questioned by any of the other characters. Homunculus congratulates Maria for having been specially selected to participate in “a unique competition to probe the very essence of mind-body articulation… a good opportunity for you to discover the true you that cowers inside the you you.” The winner, Homunculus explains, will gain both “authentic personal transcendence” and “a brand new Habanero orange compact sports utility vehicle international import”. Though uninterested in the car, Maria is on a quest for meaning and identity, and so agrees to enter the arena known as the ‘Pavilion’ – in fact a network of shabby rooms in a non-descript building.
Calm and curious, Maria finds herself pitted against four rivals in the contest. Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown) is an ADHD-afflicted wannabe star of no discernible talent. Bofill Pancreas (George Tchortov) is a good-natured bodybuilder who cannot see that the protein powder business in which he has become willingly embroiled is a pyramid scheme. Andrew Frisbee, Jr. (Christian Serritiello) is an entitled financier with deep-seated daddy issues to match (and undermine) his sense of superiority. And Felicie Arkady (Cara Ricketts) is a manipulative, ruthless strategist who just wants the SUV for herself, and will do anything to get it. These are all archetypes, played as larger-than-life caricatures, with even their names pointing to a fictive, symbolic statue.
Always punctual if often seeming confused about the events over which he is presiding, Homunculus sets the contestants a series of trials over eight rounds, and tallies the scores. Not only do these absurd tasks test the skills of the five, but also prompt them to reveal who they really are. Whether this is a variation on reality television, a self-actualisation exercise, an alien experiment, a Darwinian drama or a cosmic joke, these five very different characters will be exposed by their actions, will find a direct line to God (or at least to someone improbably called Xiphosura, the taxonomic name for the order of horseshoe crabs) and will end up in a dangerous struggle that is also a concentrated parable of their lives and drives.
With its strange mix of schlubby realism and out-and-out surrealism, Stanleyville sets out to find escapism and transcendence in everyday struggle. It is an enigmatic film – even the title remains an enigma – with the ever observant Maria our wide-eyed, child-like cicerone through its interior, internalised environments. It is not in the end clear if strength, fame, power, wealth or truth is the ultimate prize, whether in the film or indeed in life – but along the way, various ideological and philosophical concepts are set running through game theory, while despair, anxiety and nihilism remain hovering like a bird at the window. Mostly though, the feeling of estrangement and defamiliarisation which, in their different ways, the similarly unworldly Maria and Homunculus bring to everything, comes to dominate the film and to unnerve the viewer, ensuring an experience which, if perhaps not quite living up to its promise of grand revelatory insight, is certainly both kinds of funny. For on this journey of discovery, Maria is learning to look both within and beyond herself – and quite possibly finds nothing meaningful in either place.
strap: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos’ feature debut pits five strangers in an absurdist competition for escape, transcendence – or a car
© Anton Bitel