Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) was made without any proper permits or rights acquisitions. Now, that film resides in the US National Film Registry and is rightfully recognised not only as a masterpiece, but as one of the most significant films of all time. The Lad Goodbye is also an excellent film; sure, it is not a film going for the social import of Killer of Sheep but it is another reminder that commerce disrupts art, that the corporate rules that turn movie making into the movie business scupper creativity. Would Killer of Sheep be as iconic and brilliant with different music and in different locations? No, these elements are a direct expression of intent and are integral to what the film is.
The Lad Goodbye, an ultra-low budget and ultra-independent film from the Film Lads (Nolan O’Kane, Kirk Percival and Victor Dubyna), is art unleashed. It is stuffed with licensed music, overt homages and filmic glee. Passion project is thrown around too much, but it is hard to talk about this film in any other way. This is also a work of real purity. Clocking in at 138 minutes, it is a lot of film, a mammoth undertaking considering the microbudget and enthusiast background. This length is indicative of the overall feel of the film, though: the feeling of being given everything, no restrictions. Watching The Lad Goodbye is a freeing experience, a window into a different kind of filmmaking that carries forward the beauty of the artform without the commercial baggage. Showbusiness is weighed down by the second word in that portmanteau, The Lad Goodbye just gives us the show, and what a show it is. In a time of cynical corporate mergers, where finance dictates all and business interests control the artistic landscape, this film is a shining light. It has always been about the art, the emotion, the stories and the characters. The Lad Goodbye has all of this, a kind of pure, uncut cinema that will give you the high you are chasing.
This is, of course, appropriate. As stoner cinema does not get more stoner than this. Which is also refreshing, as works from the studio system that depict subcultures and countercultures always raise a bit of a suspicion, and always allow one to question legitimacy. This is a subcultural work, one that expressively uses the language of classic cinema (primarily ’70s New Hollywood) but captures something those films never could. At its core, it’s just a story of some high guys having high times, though laced with sadness. Much like the Altman film that inspires the title, this is a simple story that spirals out of control until you realise that the story doesn’t matter, it never did. What matters is the atmosphere; what matters is the characters; what matters is how it so brilliantly communicates a time and a place. This is done through a simple conceit: our protagonist, Lester (Kirk Percival) is looking for his friend, Bart (Victor Dubyna). They are best friends but Lester is leaving, a new stage of life awaits, before he leaves he wants that lad goodbye, some closure before the next chapter opens.
Or, just maybe, he is not ready to leave. His search for his friend is conspiratorial and paranoid, playing knowingly with the noir genre in a Pynchonian way that brings Inherent Vice (2014) to mind. Both operate on a stoned, feverish logic where a drugged haze is the gateway to nostalgic pasts but also something that conjures up lucid nightmares. There is a bit of ‘the times they are a changing’ to The Lad Goodbye, a film that captures that freewheeling summer feeling while making it clear that these things can’t last, or usually don’t. It gestures at dark underbellies and all consuming secrets, hints of the dreaded real that cut into our want to make that summer feeling last forever. But, they are also hyperbolised and sensationalised moments. This is a film in love with cinema and it is telling that the main character narrativizes his existence. His search for his friend has to take him on a journey into a local heart of darkness, complete with betrayal, the FBI and more. It is a reflection of cinematic longing, and of the creativity that underpins this whole endeavour. It is an escapist joy but also is used as a catalyst for deeper reflection. This surface narrative is purposefully contrived, humorously so, in a way that makes it clear this is not our focus. Instead, it provides us moments that allow Lester to reflect on his relationship with Bart.
That relationship is the core of the film. As much as this is a love letter to film (and film sans business), this is a love letter to male friendships. To friendships in general but specifically focusing on the comradery and intimacy between two male friends, something cinema still often shies away from. It is a love story where the love is friendship, and it is genuinely moving. Here, the cineliteracy only helps, as friends united by a love of film make a film about friendship. The knowing way the film plays with genre and cinematic expectations allows it to access a range of emotion, and channels this into this fraternal bond. This is a film of lyricism and atmosphere, one defined by cinematic beauty. The filmmaking is strong from the start, evidently limited by budget but always exhibiting a strong eye. Here, our camera moves with fluidity, and when it stays still it is always in the right place. Our filmmakers do a lot of fun tricks to mimic ambitious cinema, editing footage smartly to approximate Split Diopter shots (to give one example). This gives the film a traditionally cinematic feel, with sun drenched visuals and the aforementioned soundtrack. This film truly glides on music, with every choice the perfect song for the moment.
It is a funny, and silly film, about unrealistic spirals into paranoia and just getting very high. But it has real poetry, the filmmakers have a real command of imagery, and of the cinematic. There are breath taking moments here and it is put together with such style, every aspect feeling intentional. It does lapse over into over stylised and some of the affectations hold it back, but these moments are rare. For the most part, it is a film completely in tune with itself. It is on the longer side but it uses length to ally the viewer with the character. Time is spent taking in the moment and the scenery, allowing the camera to glide by while our unlikely hero cycles around. This is aided by how well Kirk Percival inhabits this character, it is a performance that starts off like a Jack Nicholson impersonation (earlier in his career, of course) but grows beyond this. Even this seems to mirror the arc of the film itself: what begins as cinema pastiche becomes something unique and meaningful, something distinct.
This is certainly an ode to film. But, beyond that, it uses film to create an ode to friendship. After all, the core of these great works is relationships. It is either a dynamic in the film between characters that draws our attention; our own specific connection to a specific figure or, most often, quite simply our relationship to the film itself. We forge relationships through films and to films, our cultural heritage underpins our realities. These filmmakers live on film, they are buoyed up by it, but they are more than it. This film that they have made chronicles this. It is also an arbiter of what cinema should be. It is so easy to get caught up in the systemic lie that profit and competition pushes quality. The Lad Goodbye reveals this for the sham it is. This is a bold work that exists outside of the capitalist moviemaking system, and is antithetical to it. The things that makes this an outsider work are the things that make it special, not only does the show not need the business, it is better without it. It is purer, more special and more human.