SXSW Film Festival: Turkey Bowl

It would have been so easy for Turkey Bowl to totally fall apart. The brief film (about 62 minutes) takes place in real time as a group of friends in their late 20s come together for a touch-football game that gradually reveals more about their relationships. It almost screams "film festival gimmick." Happily, the film is so much more than that. It's a hilarious and engaging story that's perfectly paced and wonderfully acted. The short running time is ideal, too. It would have been possible for writer-director Kyle P. Smith to pad the film with tangential subplots that dig more into the flirtations between certain pairs, or reach for some yearning and probably inaccurate summation of life at that age. But to do so would have compromised the enjoyable, sweet, and fantastic comedy he's created. It is, honestly, the most fun I've had at a movie in a long time.

The premise is cute and simple: Every year, a group of friends gather in the park to play a touch-football game, with the winning team receiving a frozen turkey. (When one newcomer notes that they're playing in August, one of the central characters fires back: "Do you like turkey? What's the problem?") As they assemble in the park, Smith efficiently sets up the characters with dialogue that's grounded in reality and laced with enough detail to hint at their collective histories. There's a high degree of verisimilitude to the set-up, too: All the characters go by their real names, and approximately half the dialogue is improvised.

On one level, nothing major happens at all. Morgan (Morgan Beck) bitches about Zeke (Zeke Hawkins) and Zeke's girlfriend, Zoe (Zoe Perry), and eventually calms down; Bob (Bob Turton) gets really into the game; Adam (Adam Benic) flirts with Kerry (Kerry Bishe), who herself causes waves by bringing in a pair of newcomers to the game, Troy (Troy Buchanan) and Sergio (Sergio Villareal). It's your basic stew of twentysomething angst and hijinks against the emotional backdrop of the time in your life when you just start drifting away from certain people. But it's beautifully observed. The camaraderie on the field, as well as the flashes of anger and forgiveness that come with any game, make for a mercurial and engaging experience, and Smith also finds great ways to shoot longer conversations that unfold over several plays.

But if that still sounds boring -- an hour of touch football? -- know that it's anything but. The dialogue is hilarious and real, ranging from playful jabs between characters to insults masking deeper resentments to the dumb braggadocio that only comes after knowing someone a long time. One of the highlights of the film is the halftime sequence, as everyone takes a break in small groups and Smith cuts between them. They chat about work, sex, energy drinks; the normal stuff that fills up your life. They feel like real people, and it's a pleasure to hang out with them.

I'm usually loathe to use phrases like "winning comedy" for fear they'll be plucked out of context and plastered elsewhere by a publicist searching for positive reviews, but in this case, it's the truth. Turkey Bowl is warm and inviting, moving through the very real lives of people trying to figure out each other and who they want to be. Keep an eye out for it.

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