Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Horizon Line

Downtown Owl — Hamish Linklater & Lily Rabe

April 24, 2024

It’s undeniably passé — and often critically fruitless — to note the difficult “art of adaptation” when it comes to translating literature for the screen, but films like Downtown Owl throw the challenge into such sharp relief that it’s impossible to skate past it unobserved. Based on the eponymous Chuck Klosterman novel and co-directed by real-life partners and creative collaborators Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, Downtown Owl squares up in the familiar space of small-town, character-driven dramedy, forecasting its climax in the opening sequence — a blizzard’s a-comin’, metaphor firmly in place. Indeed, if that description conjures up fond memories of Ang Lee’s excellent The Ice Storm, the general narrative shape isn’t far off, only here, character depth and psychological acuity are dropped in favor of single-quality archetypes, thinly-sketched dramatic impetus, and distractingly random aesthetic choices — we get exactly scene each of the following: animation, dual fourth-wall breaks, and a sequence where internal dialogue is splattered on the screen in garish neon overlay.

Also like The Ice Storm — which it’s hard to imagine didn’t directly influence a culture maven like Klosterman — Downtown Owl is a film firmly rooted in its time and place. Rather than 1970s New England, we are dropped into 1983 North Dakota, in the titular small town of roughly 850 residents. This is Reagan’s United States (the endless references to 1984 make that abundantly clear), and in the way of so much of that post-hedonism age’s provincial living, Owl is a void that seems to exist outside of such particularities as time and place, the product of a conservative era’s desire for the sham of 1950s sitcom America. That foundation, a survey of the secrets and lies that uphold romantic notions of small-town life, isn’t a poor place to build from — and one more ably explored in the source material — but it’s all downhill from there for the film. 

Downtown Owl follows Julia, a transplant to Owl (and viewer surrogate) who takes up the post of high school English teacher. The film’s premise is basically just a smashed-together idiom: a big fish out of water in a little pond. As such loglines go, Julia meets a “cast of characters,” which here include new best friend, fellow teacher, and resident badass, Naomi (Vanessa Hudgens, all Joan Jett vibes); local football fanatic, Horace (Ed Harris, asked to operate in wise old man mode); former football star and current grump, Vance (a mustachioed Henry Golding); the film’s Breakfast Club “athlete,” Mitch (August Blanco Rosenstein), an angsty and misunderstood quarterback; and Coach Laidlaw (Finn Wittrock), a teacher who seems to have a free pass for sleeping with students. As a medium, literature affords the space to flesh out the kind of overt setup and types found in Downtown Owl with nuance and depth, but the relative concision of film necessitates more finesse and grace, none of which is found here. Characters are never enriched after their introductory traits are established, and, as solely defined by cherry-picked details lifted from the source material, fail to evolve beyond mere affectations.

This pluck-and-plunk approach results in a tonal disaster. Downtown Owl moves incoherently through various phases, tilting toward limp dark comedy for a while, entering John Green-esque territory with a Scooby Doo crew of misfits briefly engaging in some amateur sleuth shenanigans at another point, and ending up with a hat-tip toward Eat, Pray, Love-styled self-discovery. Add to this the film’s clear debt to a certain mid-aughts, post-Sundance aesthetic texture, and the whole thing scans as a series of superficial gestures rendered on screen with no thought given to retaining the cogency or shade of Klosterman’s text. Clearer is the filmmaking duo’s obvious affection for the material, but even this is buried under the entirely confused cinematic reconstruction of the source novel. Ultimately, then, Downtown Owl fails to register as anything more than a muddled assemblage of underlined passages.

DIRECTOR: Hamish Linklater & Lily Rabe;  CAST: Lily Rabe, Henry Golding, Vanessa Hudgens, Ed Harris, Jack Dylan Grazer;  DISTRIBUTOR: Sony Pictures Releasing;  STREAMING: April 23;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 31 min.

Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 24