Dead Pet
directed by Kevin Cotteleer
(First Rites, 1997)

Jake Thompson's parents are a piece of work. He comes home to his suburban, cookie-cutter town for a vacation from Harvard, and what does he get? His parents forget to pick him up at the airport. They ignore his birthday. His stuff? All gone. And his bedroom has been transformed into a pink recuperation room for Miko, the family's 13-year-old poodle.

Miko, it seems, needed an operation. "A very expensive operation," Jake's pink-curlered mom meekly explains. And Mom and Dad have blown Jake's college fund to bankroll Miko's experimental treatments. Where's that leave Jake? Certainly not back at Harvard. "Now, we know you love school, and you do real good at it," Mom says. "But we couldn't let our baby die!"

First-time director Kevin Cotteleer also penned the script for Dead Pet and took on the character of Jake in this low-budget flick that was featured at SXSW International Film Festival. It's the kind of film where friends and family were recruited to play clowns and cousins, where uneven acting sometimes threatens to sink the film altogether. But, somehow, you can tell Dead Pet won't be Cotteleer's last movie. Most of Jake's friends are druggie goof-offs, young men who party, hang around and generally waste a lot of time and money doing absolutely nothing but landing Jake in jail.

The three women characters -- mom and two romantic interests -- are complete ciphers. But the movie finds some core of resonant comedy when Jake, desperate to earn tuition money, takes a job at Matador Cutlery, selling knives over the phone and door-to-door. The Shearses, Jake's only chance for a real sale, are a creepy, loopily insane, high-strung couple who address their knife as "sweet baby."

His boss, Eric (Brian Sostek) is a fervent, persistent, pep-talking kind of guy, with war-like medals on his chest, an American flag on his wall and the kind of enthusiasm found only in converts to some great movement. Eric's acolyte, Willie (Cliff Curry), is an ultra-uptight youth of 16, sneeringly superior and oleaginous, a super salesman with a vicious competitive streak. His heart really is in selling knives. Jake's isn't. And his dismal performance at work is matched by dismal choices in relationships, a dead Miko and shunning by his parents.

Dead Pet sorely needed some script editing to remove discrepancies and tighten up long wordy arguments that are delivered at one level: shrill hysteria. It has some things to say about fame and infamy in a small town, about the out-of-proportion power of small-town news, about being sealed with one identity forever, about a public's willingness to believe the worst. Much of it gets lost in the muddle. But Cotteleer shows in some shining moments, many of them at Matador Cutlery HQ, that we all have met toned-down versions of these people (or, faced with an insincere salesman, the real thing).

With a little more time for making a movie, a little more time for just directing and a paid actor in the lead, Cotteleer could be a weird, off-beat force to be reckoned with.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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