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Noah Buschel’s ‘Sparrows Dance’: A Charming Agoraphobic Mumblecore Romance

Noah Buschel’s ‘Sparrows Dance’: A Charming Agoraphobic Mumblecore Romance

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Written and directed by Noah Buschel
USA, 2012    

Set in modern-day New York City, Noah Buschel’s Sparrows Dance follows the day-to-day life of an agoraphobic former-actress (a drabbed down Marin Ireland, Homeland). Hitting a decent amount of the Mumblecore check points, the film is low budget (an estimated $175,000 production) and uses naturalistic dialogue and pacing. At the beginning of the 82 minute film, a good fifteen minutes or so is dedicated to establishing that the female lead is indeed agoraphobic and that her life revolves around bodily functions such as going to the bathroom (the film starts with her on the toiler), exercising (on a vintage-looking stationary bike) and eating (takeout: the agoraphobic’s choice). Unfortunately for her neurosis and luckily for us, her toilet clogs up enough that she has to call up a plumbing service. To her dismay, they tell her that they can’t simply tell her how to fix it over the phone.

Getting out of her standard sweats and into the office nines (blazer, skirt, heels) as a sort of sartorial armor, the woman in the apartment (we never find out her name) unlocks a few bolts and opens the door to find a sweetly scruffy plumber named Wes (played by a peculiarly charming Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire). He works on her toilet for a while, but discovers that she has rare plumbing and that fixing it will take longer than expected. Over the course of two days, they discover a shared love of jazz and ultimately, through a few more in-home visits unrelated to plumbing, they fall in love.

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Charming, sweet and slow moving, Sparrows Dance is able to portray a realistic case of agoraphobia without crossing into mocking (Shameless) or danger zones (A&E channel). Not to spoil what few twists and reveals there are, but suffice it to say that following the old cliché of the neurotic actress, it would make sense that this character would become a shut-in. In reading a brief synopsis or two before diving in, I was expecting a sort of Norma Desmond meets Miss Havisham character, but through Marin Ireland’s acting choices and a naturalistic script, the film oversteps various ageist and sexist tropes and makes the character all the more compelling. She isn’t some raging or delusional madwoman, but instead, someone whose anxiety has just been getting the best of them for the past year or so. In regards to wondering why she would warm up to her plumber, as Jeannette Catsoulis wrote in her New York Times review, “in the absence of a psychiatrist, a sympathetic tradesman is worth his weight in gold,” and it doesn’t hurt that Paul Sparks plays the character as so open and heartwarming.

101212_sparrow_0705_webEven with these realistic touches, you still will need to suspend your disbelief with other elements in the story. For example, it’s hard to believe that a woman would be able to remain in her apartment alone for over a year without much interruption on the Lower East Side, specifically at Clinton and Houston, while also being able to afford said one-bedroom apartment on acting residuals. That being written, Sparrows Dance feels sort of like a hipster fable, with the woman in the apartment being a damsel in distress who’s locked herself away and a plumber-poet-saxophonist with a slightly ginger beard being her knight in shining armor. Although, don’t let that mislead you, this is a modern mumblecore film after all and she is the one who frees herself in the end.

With a very low budget, Sparrows Dance still manages to give an engrossing albeit not too artificially in-depth portrait of a woman, her struggle with agoraphobia, and the man who helps lessen that burden. Visually, the film is entrancing from its 4:3 frame to the apartment’s red lighting at night (thanks to the neon signs outside her window). That being said, certain plot points and references tends to be a bit on the underdeveloped side. The details we do glean about the characters appear to be more superficial, or at least in terms of the film being a character study, although this quality does fit the more naturalistic style of Mumblecore filmmaking. Also along this line, there are many allusions throughout the film, but they don’t feel fully utilized and some of them feel downright misplaced as though they were picked from a hipster grab bag.

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The soundtrack features a few 1960s R&B songs. Considering the characters’ shared interest in jazz, wouldn’t it have been more fitting to have jazz songs mark those moments rather than tunes you’d likely hear in a Martin Scorsese movie? Also, a clip from The Strange Love of Martha Ivers doesn’t seem to quite fit in the film other than to show a tense woman watching a tense Lizabeth Scott watching and being tormented by Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin and creating a very awkward chain of voyeurism. After that clip, I thought the film would reveal that the woman in the apartment’s agoraphobia was linked to a former romance rather than her acting nerves. If it was simply to show the woman in the apartment having little social life and watching old movies, they could have chosen a more fitting scene. Similarly, they chose a lofty quote from Hanshan aka Cold Mountain, an eighth century T’ang Dynasty poet, to reference in the film and title of a story about a budding romance between an agoraphobic and a musically inclined plumber—“If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks, we sparrows could dance wherever we please!” Possibly reading into it too much, but would that mean that Wes is that someone and the woman in the apartment is a sparrow? If that’s the case, who or what are the hawks? Society in general or her fears? Or are they both sparrows and their love is the someone that pokes the eyes out of negativity? This latter one may be the case, considering that the two actors literally dance in the film. But again, what is the film trying to say by referencing that quote in relation to this story? Although these bits of criticism may read as nitpicky, the general point is that these particular references don’t enhance the film as much as other choices could have and therefore seem weak in terms of the overall film.

Sparrows Dance is a moving film about a woman who overcomes her fears to find love and freedom when she least expects it, which is made compelling thanks to naturalistic storytelling, talented actors, and beautiful visuals. Director Noah Buschel said in an interview with The Playlist that his goal with this film was to “make a mumblecore movie that doesn’t suck.” We can genuinely write that he has succeeded and by a long shot, the film winning Best Narrative Feature at the Austin Film Festival and opening today in limited release. If you aren’t able to make it to the Quad Cinema in New York City tonight, the film can also be found on iTunes and VOD.

– Diana Drumm

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