Director: Chris Lowell
Starring: Ryan Eggold, Beck Bennett, Britt Lower
The Big Chill came out in 1983, the year I was born. In case you haven’t seen it, it has become a film that defines a generation; those who were born in the 60s, grew up in the 70s, and made the early 80s the strange & wild time that it was. The story is pretty simple; a group of friends gather for a funeral and stay for a weekend reunion. The characters are what make the movie, the way in which all their lives intersect, and the bonds that hold them all together. Since that film, a recipe has been developed, a friends-back-together formula that’s easy to make & easy to fall for. We all feel nostalgia after all, in one form or another, and stories that feed on the emotion we hold about the past tend to reel us in without too much of an effort. Beside Still Waters in no different; it even has a gathering after death theme. But that doesn’t stop it from being powerful, honest, and heartbreaking in a way that only Big Chill movies can accomplish.
Daniel’s parents have recently died and he has been forced to sell their beautiful lakeside home. This is difficult for him, of course, as it signifies moving on past the family that he loved, but there’s another reason that it’s hard to part with the old cabin. It was the site of many a wild party back in the day, the hang out spot for the old gang, the place where memories were made. So Daniel invites his friends home for one last party, one last chance at freedom, before the clubhouse is sold to the highest bidder. Tom the sarcastic best friend, Charley the wild girl, James the newly famous actor, Martin & Abby the couple, and finally Olivia the love lost. But Olivia’s brought a guest, her fiance Henry, and this addition changes the temper of the reunion. Daniel can’t deal soberly with the loss of his parents, the hurt of his ex moving on, or the fact that the gang has changed. And so one more wild night ensues, an event that will affect every one of the friends, that will show that the past may be behind them, but that it’s never completely gone.
The night includes a variety of drunken party activities: skinny dipping, always a favorite, and whiskey slaps, something perhaps most of us have never tried. Basically, you take a shot of whiskey and someone slaps you. Might not sound like much fun now, but maybe it’s more exciting when you’re drunk. But after all the fun, after the drinking and the reconnecting, the hookups and the mistakes, dawn breaks on a new day in which life must go on. The friends realize, after a night back in the place where they grew up, that they aren’t really that grown up after all, that the past hasn’t been left very far behind, and that it’s so easy to slip back in time to become the people you once were. For Daniel, decisions will be made that will affect his path and the people he will share his journey with will be be chosen. It’s a night to remember, an important reunion, and the springboard for the future.
You can take a successful theme and repurpose it, but that’s no guarantee of success. And this film definitely borrowed a lot from The Big Chill, even adding in the actor character that was so important in the original. But thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly, Beside Still Waters was able to lean heavily on the past while bringing something new as well. That new element may be nothing more than good acting & good chemistry, as the story wasn’t innovative at all, but the actors portraying that story were able to do so with a natural fluidity that made the entire film enjoyable and at the same time emotional. Ryan Eggold as the main character was a solid rock; good-looking, likeable, sad. Beck Bennett, who you might recognize from SNL or those AT&T commercials, was great as the right hand man, the friend who’d do anything to help his buddy. And Britt Lower, the evil ex, was able to make her character believable if not exactly lovable. The ensemble cast came together, took an old story, brought it back to life, and left us with a movie that hurts a little, but in that special, honest way that we actually yearn for.
And ‘ensemble’ is the right work to use frequently when talking about this movie, because nothing would have been accomplished without a solid cast that made us believe that they’ve been friends for years. They all played off each other so well, felt connected, were comfortable with each other, and made the film a believable portrayal of real life. Eggold, Bennett, & Lower all did great with their roles, but the other friends were just as strong in smaller roles. Will Brill & Erin Drake, the couple who perhaps came off as a bit awkward and hard to imagine together, but still honestly delivered a story of two people going through a bit of a down time. Jessy Hodges as the wild Charley was fun, playful, slightly depressing, but one of those characters that remind everyone of someone in their own life. And Brett Dalton, the actor, was a solid piece of the puzzle. Every actor had to be a believable part of the greater story in order to make Beside Still Waters work, and they were.
Video – With an aspect ratio of 16:9 Widescreen, the video quality won’t blow you away. The film was shot using an Arriflex 16 SR3 camera with Zeiss Super Speed Lenses and delivers a quality that is good enough, but not impressive. The picture is fine, slightly grainy, with a nod to a few generations back and without a desire to bring perfectly clear images to the screen. The visuals are the background of the story, but not the important part of the film.
Audio – The disc was done in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with an option for 2.0 Stereo. There are no language, subtitle, or audio choices beyond that. The sound quality, like the video, is fine but not great. So much emphasis was put on dialogue, emotion, and the moment, that the technical aspects were put on the back burner for the majority of the film.
Extras – There are a few special features on the DVD if you’re looking for more. An eleven-minute long Behind The Scenes segment gives us some insight into the making the film and the honest fun that the cast & crew must have shared during filming. Two deleted scenes can be watched: Extended Hammock features Charley & James reconnecting, while Pirates of Penzance is the friends around the dinner table. An alternate ending is available, with or without commentary. And the entire film can be watched with commentary as well.
Recommended. I would never call Beside Still Waters a ripoff, but it does rely heavily on our love for the Big Chill style of drama. Friends joining together, nostalgia a thick fog surrounding the action, a feel of the future right ahead; it’s a theme we’ve seen compiled before and done very well, but that doesn’t mean if can’t be done well one more time. Audiences seem to enjoy this movie more than critics, but I’ll side with audiences on this one, as I couldn’t stop myself from enjoying a story that reminded me of my own friends and the good times that I still remember with such vivid clarity. The video is OK, the audio is fine, there are a few extras, but if you end up loving this film it will be because you felt connected to the characters as if they were your own past come to life. It’s worth a shot in the dark if you’re not sure; it just might break your heart.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ – Content
☆ ☆ ☆ – Video
☆ ☆ ☆ – Audio
☆ ☆ ☆ – Extras
☆ ☆ ☆ – Replay