Indie darling Andrew Bujalski is widely considered to be the ‘godfather of mumblecore’, a movement that proffers amateur actors and slender plots designed primarily to examine personal relationships. His films to date, beginning with 2002’s Funny Ha Ha, have been widely lauded for developing that sub-genre to explore themes grander than its minimalism might suggest. With several of his fellow alum bursting into the wider cinematic consciousness recently, the stage is set for the original trailblazer to follow suit. Caïssa willing, this could happen with his unconventional but endearing Computer Chess (2013).
It appears, at first glance, that Bujalski has defied a central mumblecore tenet, naturalism, by embracing a monochrome video aesthetic for his latest venture. In fact, his utilisation of this retro canvas gives his film the feel of being placed firmly, and authentically, in the pre-1984 period in which it is set. A nondescript hotel plays host to a convention of bona fide nerds gathering together for an annual chess tournament. As the title denotes however, it’s not the characters competing in this intellectual duel but their proto-Deep Blue pals. That’s ultimately the films plot. The opening ‘book moves’ of Computer Chess belong, firmly, to its impressive cast who manage to perfectly capture the awkward bravado of this nascent geek community.
Film critic Gerald Peary is excellent as tournament host, and master chess player, Henderson, whilst maverick programmer Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige) and the quiet Peter (Patrick Riester) are both compelling and arguably come closest to protagonist status. Running alongside the unfurling drama of the tournament itself are a variety of sideshows including Papageorge’s search for a place to sleep, discussions of technological advancement, and a potential romance. As the runtime progresses, things go out of book. Narrative idiosyncrasies and cinematic glitches abound, and will undoubtedly alienate as many viewers as they enrapture. When combined with the attendees philosophical musings, however, they synchronise to form a premonition of our future dependence on ubiquitous hi-tech gadgets, albeit an esoteric one.
It’s a gambit that never feels forced but marks the film’s denouement out as a very different scenario to its more overtly comic opening and may cause some viewers to switch off. Consistently funny throughout, fans of squirm-inducing humour will find much to enjoy as will those keen on a more absurdist qualities. It may be broaching broad thematic ground but through understated performances and nicely observed period detail, Computer Chess manages to present them in a mostly palatable package. Whether audiences are willing to process the more existential endgame will undoubtedly prove to be the litmus test for its success, but it seems destined for cult status.
This review was originally published on 10 October, 2013 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.