Credit: TIFF
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Horizon Line

The Climb | Michael Angelo Covino

November 18, 2020

The Climb is perhaps overly familiar but boasts a chemistry-rich lead duo and a winning commitment to its comedy-by-repetition mode.

The Climb opens on the image of two friends on a French bike tour: Mike (Michael Angelo Covino, also acting as writer-director here) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin, Covino’s co-writer). Both men are bedecked in fitting pedaller garb and shown trading cycling jargon as they climb and coast through rural hills. Any suggestion of innate romanticism or suavity of character is quickly dispensed with, in a manner signaling the cringe-core stylings to come. On a particularly grueling climb, Mike admits to Kyle that he has been sleeping with his fiancé: “If I catch you, I’m going to kill you,” Kyle breathlessly threatens, to which Mike responds, “I know. That’s why I waited for the hill to tell you.” The ensuing extended cycle chase is a fairly apt forecast of the film to follow: despite the potential gravity of such subject matter, the proceedings remain committed to absurdist buffoonery, the stakes never demanding an empathic engagement with the leads even as narrative ploys stack up.

Covino instead opts for an arch approach to character and a litany of comedic gambits — his instincts are sledgehammer soft — and it’s an admittedly familiar formula found in any number of festival-ready indie comedies of the past decade, but here mostly carried through thanks to the chemistry of The Climb‘s two leads. Of the pair, it’s Marvin who most impresses: his everyman mug and pronounced dopiness make a convincing argument for some John C. Reilly kinship, and his aw-shucks naiveté becomes an effective complement to the film’s considerable slapstick influence, as well as a necessary counterpoint to Mike’s more caustic presence. Covino’s directorial approach, too, keeps things hammy, with a roving, interrogative camera that dances and whirls in deadass arthouse mimicry and in incorporating nonsensical musical interludes to round out the comical pretense.

But that isn’t to say Covino has nothing else on his mind here; at its core, his film is a portrait of a corrosive, codependent friendship and all the hypocrisies and compromises inherent. There’s genuine pathos simmering just beneath the low-brow japery, but the filmmaker doesn’t ever feel the need to explicate his interests, and instead trusts his intentionally repetitive narrative structure to build comic scaffolding rather than relying on any over-earnest thematic heft. There’s no denying the familiar elements here — few moves are more recognizably indie than a writer-director-star attempting to signal ego displacement by playing an abrasive, unlikeable cad — but Covino utilizes that very familiarity to riff on independent cinema precedents. If The Climb doesn’t entirely break the mold, it at least manages to feel fairly (surprisingly) singular, thanks largely to its very specific commitment to an unapologetic hooligan spirit.