Starring Dwayne Bartholomew, Nathan Sapsford, Shawn Parsons, Kristina Guerrero, Corrin Evans
Directed by J. Rick Castaneda
Written by J. Rick Castaneda
Writer-director J. Rick Castaneda’s indie film Cement Suitcase has an off-kilter winning spirit that soars above its quirky pathos. Infectiously witty, irreverent and bouncy, Castaneda’s nifty narrative takes a charming approach to spotlighting one young man’s dalliances in wine and life lessons decline. Beautifully shot and fortified with solidly impish performances, Cement Suitcase is a reminder that our existences–no matter how stable, stagnant or scattered–are unpredictable and can never be as definitively defined as a vintage bottle of Merlot. Castaneda’s adventurous direction and smart writing arms this soothing dramedy gem with the right kind of gently wacky reflection and radiance.
Wine salesman Franklin Roew (Dwayne Bartholomew) leads somewhat of a dreary livelihood in Granger, Washington…a small-town rural hamlet situated in the Yakima Valley. Frank methodically invites us into his drab world of daily life as we discover some of the revolving burdens that plague him. In the wake of his beloved mother’s passing, we find Frank struggling to pay the mortgage for the family home that was left to him. The bills are piling up and are overdue forcing Frank to look for a roommate to help out financially. Plus Frank harbors much skepticism about his insanely attractive girlfriend Charlene (Kristina Guerrero) whom he knows is cheating on him behind his back with pretty boy golfing guru Brad Golob (Shawn Parsons). With no college education or marketable skills to do anything else besides wasting away at the Airfield Winery where he is employed Frank is stuck in a rut.
As we get random snippets at Frank’s mundane stint at Airfield Winery, we learn that he is a pariah to his frustrated co-workers in the boss’s daughter Katie Carpenter (Corrin Evans), a budding real estate agent and Jose (Jesus Sandoval). Although Katie and Jose cannot stand the insufferable Frank they know that he keeps his job because owner Mr. Carpenter (Dannul Dailey) realizes what a capable salesman Frank is as the profits roll in due to his unorthodox wine-selling abilities. Frank is just going through the motions with the customers and detests the same old work-related shtick that reels in the patrons’ purchasing power for wine. He does have a gift for gab and the folks do buy into into wine-pushing antics. Nevertheless, Frank impatiently stares at the clock on the wall and yearns to escape his workplace miseries.
In the meantime, Frank continues to ponder the state of his rocky relationship with the unfaithful Charlene while selectively daydreaming about what his life would be like if his current stresses and strains were non-existent. Sadly, the unpaid bills are still arriving at his doorstep and there have not been any serious responses to his online ad for a roommate. Frank is drowning in doubt and depression. What’s next for the flustered wine salesman as the downward spiral gains momentum? It would take a couple of colorful characters’ nonchalant influences shaping uptight Frank’s huffy disposition before he loosens up somewhat. First, a free-spirited Aussie named Jackford (Nathan Sapsford) answers the call to become Frank’s new roommate. Jackford appears rather intrusive, dippy and philosophically breezy. Frank finds him irritable and pushy. When Jackford shows him the impressive roll of cash he has to justify his presence staying under Frank’s roof foreign the visitor conveniently secures temporary shelter. After all, beggars cannot be choosers and Frank will have to simply tolerate the scatterbrained Jackford if he is to have a shot at keeping his home from being foreclosed. It does not take long for Frank to let his hair down and allow the affable loose cannon Jackford engage him in a few pranks just to keep his mind off of his escalating problems. Spontaneous stunts such as stacking shopping carts in the form of a monument or leaving a cement-filled suitcase out for others to try to move or partaking in the nutty activity of car-diving (yeah…you just got to see it to believe it) are oddly therapeutic for the wound-up Frank to take a chill pill.
When Charlene’s “squeeze-on-the-side” Brad shows up at Airfield Winery and strikes up a chatty exchange with Frank things become even more surreal. Frank feels that this may be some kind of concocted ruse conceived by both Charlene and Brad to further make a fool out of him. Frank swears that Brad must recognize him but the garrulous guy ends up inviting him to a game of golf. Again, just what is this cad up to anyway? Frank, out of curiosity, decides to take Brad up on his offer to meet up on the golf course. Frank finds out that Brad is a nice and down-to-earth person that just wants a friend and experiences loneliness at times. Brad proudly discusses his “girlfriend” Charlene to Frank…something that is undoubtedly uncomfortable for the wine expert to hear about in detail. The golfing is enjoyable for both men but Frank continues to question why in the world he would be socializing with the new buddy who is actively screwing his woman with the wandering eye? Brad is immensely likable and perhaps it is Charlene that has played both of them?
The hits keep coming for Frank as his woman Charlene pretends as if everything is okay as she does not let on her canoodling tendencies with Brad even when Frank asks her outright if she is cheating on him (Charlene serves up her ready-made denial). Frank’s over-the-top button-pushing tactics at Airfield Winery finally gets him fired. The boiling point is brimming with Frank’s self-made hangover, newly unemployed status and on-going loathing. Jackford, who means well, tries to annoyingly snap Frank out of his funk (maybe pouring soda into his X-box game was not the brightest solution, Jackford?) while announcing that he is moving on with his new trucking job he landed courtesy of car-diving. The insult to injury is introduced when Brad invites a disillusioned Frank to dinner to meet his woman Charlene. So now the drama builds as the audience speculates about how Frank will confront the two-timing tart Charlene.
As chippy and offbeat as Cement Suitcase is in its entertaining execution, Casteneda employs a somber undercurrent that keeps the steady drama evenly balanced with the soft chuckles. Bartholomew’s Frank is interesting in that he is a self-involved blowhard whose handy showmanship for selling wine at a dead end job and quick-witted retorts makes him kind of bothersome yet sympathetic at times. Everything about Frank is sketchy and undetermined–his desperate romantic association with Charlene, his uninspired job title as a wine salesman, his lack of acknowledgement towards work colleagues, etc. Frank cannot even fathom cementing anything meaningful with loopy acquaintances in Jackford and Brad, two souls that could accept all his faults and still not ask much from him. Frank is the ultimate underachiever but it is clear that he is obviously bright and alert. One imagines the reasoning behind why this young man just settled for whatever served his purpose at the time? The fact that he scored Charlene’s attention at a local bar supports the notion that this guy does not want to invest in anything or anyone real and stable. Frank, at least in how he acts at times, seems rather casual about Charlene’s philandering as we never get any bouts of outrage for what she has done to him. Maybe Frank feels that he was fortunate to even have a barfly babe such as Charlene give him some consideration in the first place?
The supporting cast are stellar. Both Sapsford and Parsons bring to the table a refreshing flakiness as Frank’s sidekicks-in-the-making. Guerrero’s Charlene is stunning but curiously misguided as the woman in the middle of the storm. Clearly, Charlene–much like her neglected Frank–is lost and out on a limb barely eking out a living at a low-wage job while hanging on to men that can either show her some stability or be grateful for her role as arm candy. Furthermore, Jeffrey Waldron’s scrumptious cinematography of the Granger landscape with scenic rolling fields, spacious roads, eye-popping wine vineyards all add to the atmospheric vitality. The infusion of bubbly animation work by Christopher Poole and Kelly Matten is roguishly imaginative.
The eccentric Cement Suitcase urges one to take more than a fashionable sip in reference to this indie charmer.