Alex is a mess. He’s a morning drinker, sullen and depressed, living a dull, gray life in his colorless apartment. He’s not so much insulated as isolated; the opening shots of Erik Carlson’s* Transatlantic Coffee reveal fragments of a man so shattered, self-destructive impulses are not just second nature to him, but probably first nature. (Plus, he looks a bit like Dustin Hoffman, which immediately gives him a kind of puppydog quality that elicits sympathy.) He’s not quite all alone, however. His friend Ronnie tries to help him out, if “help out” were to mean “take to an ‘alternative’ strip club and attempt to get laid.”
But maybe Alex doesn’t need any help. What would benefit him the most, right now, at this very moment? Perhaps an uninhibited, free-spirited, sprightly young stripper—who, incidentally, resembles a sober Amy Winehouse. It just so happens that Alex has met such a creature on the Internets, and has convinced her to visit the Big Apple to lure him out of his pervasive funk. When Mandie enters the picture, she turns out to be everything Alex could have asked for: very uninhibited, definitely free-spirited, and oh-so-more-than sprightly. She’s perfect in every way; the kind of woman who seems conjured from the same genetic material as Ruby Sparks.
Kevin Pinassi gives Alex a lovely vulnerability; we feel that his pain is completely inwardly directed, and over time has become irreparably corrosive. Rachel Marie Lewis, as Mandie, rides a fine line between being Alex’s dream girl and hiding dark secrets of her own. Mandie is never quite too perfect—except those particular moments when she needs to be, more for herself than for Alex.
There is a striking shot about twenty minutes into Transatlantic Coffee. (Pictured at top.) Alex is telling Ronnie (played by a very impressive Marcel Torres, for and from whom I expect good things in the future) about Mandie for the first time. Ronnie is giving Alex the usual jibes about meeting someone over the internet, and then Carlson gives us a close up of Alex on a crucial line: “She’s young, Ronnie. I’ve been talking to her for weeks now.” Over Alex’s left shoulder sits a skull, out of focus, facing the audience. It’s a canny use of mise-en-scène as foreshadowing, and shows Carlson’s talent as a visual filmmaker. There are many such examples in Transatlantic Coffee, the most prominent of which is the film’s color palette. Alex is color-blind, mirrored in the film’s flat, grayscale opening scenes; when Mandie enters the picture, vibrant colors abound. There were times that I wished the dialogue were told in inter- or subtitles, so the visuals were even more to the forefront of the story.
In fact, much of the dialogue plays like spoken subtitles. This is not necessarily a criticism; Carlson lampshades this quality by having his characters obliquely refer to it. In a scene where Alex tells Mandie that he actually prefers being colorblind, we hear this exchange:
“It’s more… cinematic emotionally. Very European.”
“Are you saying this is a film we live in? Our own little European film?”
“Yes. A bad little romantic film.”
“No! We would make a great film! We’d have our own little Mandie and Alex action dolls…”
While many indie movies nowadays borrow from the minimalist mumblecore aesthetic, Transatlantic Coffee has a decidedly European flair—it’s like watching a left-field Italian or German film, and I found that refreshing. It shows a filmmaker with a distinctive voice, and not one willing to join the ranks of a fad in hopes of getting attention from some cinematic/cultural zeitgeist.
Transatlantic Coffee isn’t perfect, however. There is a scene with Alex’s mother where the actress goes so far over the top that if you yourself were at the top looking up, she’d be but a tiny dot in the distance. The film also ends a bit abruptly, for my taste. But Erik Carlson’s first fiction feature exhibits ample skill, and I look forward to his next effort with anticipation. Indie cinema, especially in this era, could do with a few more directors like Carlson. Watch for this guy.
Bottom Line: Erik Carlson’s ‘Transatlantic Coffee’ is indie cinema with a European flair, avoiding tiresome mumblecore twee.
Transatlantic Coffee is available on Amazon Instant.
*(Note: Erik Carlson is no relation to our Alex.)