To trek from Williamsburg to the beach at Fort Tilden, Allie (Claire McNulty) asks her upstairs neighbor (Neil Casey) if she can borrow his bike. In doing so, however, she issues the mandatory askance: “How are you?” He replies earnestly: health problems besieging his family begat financial problems, etc. Life is really happening to this guy. With little common ground and an aversion to empathy, Allie helplessly blurts out, “It’s so hot outside!” And the delineation between the two blooms. Even if Allie is twenty-five and on the verge of going to Liberia with the Peace Corps, she can hardly wrap her head around grown adult problems. It’s evocative of the self-contained ecosphere of hipster millennial Brooklyn where the hilarious and mortifying “Fort Tilden” is set. But on their journey to the Queens historic district that gives Sarah Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’ remarkable indie film its name, she and her best pal Harper (Bridey Elliot) will come face to face with the frowny face emoji of the real world.
Allie and Harper live together in a loft that with its separate bedrooms reached by separate staircases is like a quirky modernistic update of a Laurel & Hardy arrangement. They are apart yet always together, conjoined by text messages. We first meet them at a smallish rooftop concert hosted by twin-sister singer/songwriters Naomi and Leia (Pheobe and Claire Tyers), a more bohemian version of the Indigo Girls. And this sequence sets the film’s template, one that quickly turns its satirical claws inward. Sitting side by side, Allie and Harper sit in the small audience, smugly mocking the Naomi and Leia. The jokes are funny, yes, but Allie and Harper are eventually revealed as the punchline. Their haughtiness stands in stark contrast to the earnestness of the twin-sisters. Harper, an artist too, has nothing but thinly veiled contempt, yet no real artistic conviction her own. Allie, meanwhile, repeatedly takes pride in pointing out she’s going to Liberia with the Peace Corps, even if it quickly becomes clear this nothing more than a faux-noble non-starter.
At the party they meet a couple fellas who inadvertently invite them to a day at the beach out at Fort Tilden the following day, this bidding becoming their urban call to adventure as they cross the threshold, departing their familiar neighborhood for the urban wilds, forced to confront various crises seemingly as a cosmic means to spur them, however reluctantly, toward adulthood…maybe. Formally “Fort Tilden” comes to resemble Adam Leon’s wonderful “Gimme the Loot” in its portrayal of one seemingly endless New York day, a lo-fi screwball spirit where everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Yet despite its petty crime and crude language, “Gimme the Loot” was ultimately warm of heart and generous of spirit whereas “Fort Tilden” is more acidic and cruel.
Allie opts for the beach over filing out important paperwork for her Peace Corp trip, feigning sickness, a clear signal to everyone but her that she’s hardly taking this Liberia proposal seriously. Harper, meanwhile, is exposed as almost entirely dependent on daddy, placing increasingly desperate phone calls to him the further their journey gets off course. Eventually he cuts her off, so to speak, not to take a stand, it seems, but simply because he’s indifferent and distracted. Like father, like daughter.
Even as their problems mount, they never seem to grasp the tenuous nature of their journey. Neighborhoods through which they pass become increasingly sketchy, yet even as they notice this change they simultaneously remain unaware, childishly flitting through danger zones, wrapped in a cocoon of myopia. They excel at ribbing the other's flaw but struggle at identifying their own. It would be unbearable if the performers didn't outfit their characters with just enough real world naivety that you believe they can eventually see the light.
The conclusion, of course, is intended as the correction to their self-involvement. They get lost once reaching their destination, taking path after path, trying to find the right one, symbolism that isn’t shoved down our throat but allowed to breathe. And upon reaching the beach and discovering the two guys and the two girls the two guys have unexpectedly brought along are mere teenagers, Allie and Harper are forced to confront the fact they’re the people who stayed at the party too long, aged out of the lifestyle they were leading without even realizing it.
Yet even if they find the elixir, it remains buried in the sand. Though the film’s epilogue is fitting, leaving an ellipsis rather than a period, “Fort Tilden” it is best summarized in the shot of Allie and Harper in the cold, uninviting Atlantic surf, bobbing up and down, forlorn. They’ve come to Fort Tilden to make their last stand, but all it really looks like is surrender.