Wednesday 26 May 2021

Next stop wonderland: "Drunk Bus"

Drunk Bus is one of those small, ultra-personal passion projects: almost certainly written in a coffee shop and evidently informed by lived experience ("based on real shit", as an introductory title card has it), it's somehow been financed and nurdled onto our screens without undue compromise. There's an element of Clerks on wheels about it. These are the misadventures of a mopey, virginal young photojournalism-class dropout called Michael (Charlie Tahan, from Netflix's Ozark), who takes a low-paying gig driving a night bus around Kent, Ohio's university circuit so as to take his mind off a recent split with his childhood sweetheart. Writer Chris Molinaro and the directorial team of John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke fill this framework with varyingly vivid recollections of their own college-age menial labour: vomiting passengers (and worse besides), an ongoing enmity with the local frat kids, a regular in a mobility scooter who goes by the name Fuck Off Bob. More prominently of all, there is the arrival of a heavily tattooed and pierced Samoan security guard, Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa), who does his level best over these night shifts to transform Michael's foul-smelling tin can into a party bus, and to remodel our pining pushover of a protagonist into a properly independent young man. Narratively, then, we're headed in one direction and one direction only, namely getting Michael to move on; the bus, crappy as it is, proves to be as good a vehicle as any on which to reach that goal.

Any recommendation would have to come with a few caveats: it's a bit mumbly, it doesn't look like much - there may be even less money at this level of indie filmmaking than there is in actual busdriving - and it's grounded, from first frame to last, in callow twentysomething male experience. That experience is at least rendered affectionately, though. At its best - in those stretches where the coffee started to kick in, whether in Molinaro's preferred Starbucks or on the film's snowy (New York state) locations - Drunk Bus reminded me of Prime Video's charming coming-of-age saga Red Oaks, which had Craig Roberts in the Tahan role, the likes of David Gordon Green and Amy Heckerling behind the camera, and a country club where the bus goes here. The film comes to fullest life in its second act, establishing Michael and Pineapple's odd-couple relationship, as the older party, a deadbeat dad in his other life, steers his charge away from his own worst, self-defeating instincts, and gets him to loosen up a little. It's typical of the project's prevailing sweetness that Michael's journey should be less about getting laid (his virginity is scattered to the wind mid-movie) and more about finding a friend. Quite the friend, too. Tahan, who may be fated to spend the next few years playing back-up to Lucas Hedges in mid-range indies, does everything the material requires, but the film is comprehensively stolen by Tangaroa, who just seems tremendous fun to be around, with a party piece that seems very nightbus, and is likely beyond the range of most actors: poking his tongue through a scar in his chin.

Drunk Bus is now available to rent via Prime Video.

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