Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
On the evening of June 15, 2013, 16 year old Ethan Couch of Texas--already hammered and having stolen 2 cases of beer from Walmart--was joy-riding with friends on a dark rural road in his dad's Ford F-350 pickup--going 70 in a 40--when he struck four pedestrians dead while severely injuring two of his buddies.
In the court proceedings, a psychologist hired by the Couch family claimed Ethan suffered from "affluenza", the inability to act responsibly due to the coddling and over-indulgence of his wealthy parents. In December, he was sentenced to 90 days of rehab and 10 years of probation. The "treatment" facility in California--chosen and paid for by his folks--included "therapy" such as horseback riding, mixed martial arts, and cooking classes among other things on the 6-acre getaway.
The story has since been dubbed "The Affluenza Defense" and it was just one of several places my mind wandered to watching the infuriating "The Upper Footage", a portrait of entitlement with an entirely different story of its own to tell, but with eerily similar themes and an effective filming style meant to blur the lines between fiction and reality.
The movie belongs to the found-footage sub-genre, made popular in the last decade or so with titles such as "The Blair Witch Project", "Cloverfield", "Chronicle" and "Paranormal Activity". It has done wonders for the sci-fi and horror genres, giving them a kind of real-world edge that can go missing from big Hollywood productions. The premise is tried and true: something freakish or wicked happens somewhere, video footage is collected from one or more sources involved, and hundreds of hours of footage are edited to a convenient 90-minute experience for the paying public to finally discover.
What distinguishes "The Upper Footage" from those other movies is in the way it takes a sub-genre exploited mostly for reality-thrillers and puts it to good use in a story that feels true to life. On that note, I was reminded of "Catfish", a human drama about a deceptive online friendship that was just this side of real while Upper is just this side of fiction.
The plot: In the fall of 2009, a young woman named Jackie was found dead in socialite Blake Pennington's condo after a night of copious boozing and drugging with him, his girlfriend Taylor, and friends Devon and Will. They found the girl at a dive bar downtown in a stop awaiting a cocaine hookup.
In the subsequent months after her death, Blake went underground and somebody with access to the footage of the happenings tried unsuccessfully to extort money from his family in order to keep the matter private. Rumor had it that Quentin Tarantino bought the footage and meant to make a movie out of it before finally dropping the project. The story even made the real-world Entertainment Tonight when one of the participants on "Dancing With the Stars"--a former Disney kid--was forced to publicly deny that she attended that particular after-hours party.
Do you know who Paris Hilton's brother is? Neither do I, but Blake Pennington is in that stratosphere of socialites. His evening plans with friends play like a mundane version of what often unfolds for them: pre-drinking at Blake's Upper West Side digs, gallivanting around town in a limo, and then after-hours back at Blake's. Devon, we sense, is his closest enabler while Will is on camera duty.
The conceit of found-footage movies always comes back to the remarkable feature that somebody kept a camera recording long after it would make sense to have it on, but I think it works here on a level that is understood by many young people of the Jackass generation, who film their debauchery and watch it later for laughs. It would seem plausible that Will should stop recording at a certain point after Jackie's death, but what goes unsaid throughout the picture is whether or not he is filming with the knowledge that the video evidence might help him either in legal or financial terms.
The first third is tedious setup, I suppose, but it observes the behavior of these characters; we see them party, talk derogatory smack of anyone outside their bubble, and party some more. Blake lampoons Jackie's ordinariness over how dumbstruck she is to be in such a fancy apartment. Will finds her hot from behind the camera while Devon's all over her in front of it. Taylor's a cackling mess who finds Blake's threats to smack her in the face hilarious.
Director Justin Cole does a terrific job of using implication and suggestion to tell his story. At a point during the debauchery when Jackie removes her top in front of the boys, a title card informs us that the following sequence has been edited out of the film out of respect for the deceased. Was she raped? By whom? The boys don't refer to it later, but the seeds have been planted. And then, Jackie overdoses and is found dead on the bathroom floor. The next two shots are very effective as the camera is laid on the floor and then on a nearby table with events depending on what we hear and what we think we've heard while the boys and Taylor sort out what their next move ought to be. It feels like that's where the camera would be.
What follows is an exercise in watching this group make a series of very poor decisions, but ones that could only be made by people who have the resources to make those kinds of decisions. If Blake Pennington were not Blake Pennington, and was, say, that young black man who was the subject of "Fruitvale Station" last year, it is clear to us that his fate would not play out on equal terms with that of Blake's. Or that of Ethan's. Much more likely that a kid from less means would end up in Texas' public juvenile prison system.
"The Upper Footage" is a hidden gem roaming around video-on-demand, a story of personal horror flavored with real-world issues involving privilege, the prevalence of the media to cover people who are famous for being only indirectly famous, the difference between friends and followers, and a justice system that is not blind to the resources that large sums of money can procure.