' ' Cinema Romantico: Build the Wall

Monday, November 16, 2020

Build the Wall

Despite taking place in Vermont, some 2,900 miles from Mexico, Joe Swanberg’s 56-minute film “Build the Wall” is not about the border. The wall does not pertain to a mythical Canadian barrier either but to a small partition in someone’s rural, Green Mountain State backyard. Still, if you name your movie “Build the Wall” here, now, in this political climate, it is not a coincidence. And what Swanberg, returning to the movies from TV where he has spent the last few years, does in his preferred manner of carving out easygoing narratives through observation of human interaction and indifference, is essentially repurpose the notion of building wall into something inviting rather than alienating.

“Build the Wall” turns on Kent (Kent Osborne), about to turn 50, having an old friend from L.A., Sarah (Jane Adams), pay a visit to coincide with his 50th birthday. If this visit, Kent says, has something to do with a project they are working on, that project is never defined in detail - nay, never defined at all. No, this seems more about rekindling a romance that might have almost been, evinced in Adams’s laugh, which is always a little bit more than it needs to be, conveying the intention that “hey, I’m into you”, which Kent happily responds to. Her staying, however, is thrown into some flux that seems more mental than actual, however, because of Kev (Kevin Bewersdorf) showing up to build the wall as a birthday present to his friend. Bewersdorf plays his role with his comical thousand yard stare, like Kylie the opossum in “Fantastic Mr. Fox”; you’re never sure if anything’s getting through.

Kev is not bothered by Kent’s insistence that his friend sleep outside so as not to interfere. As Kev explains, he’s already been sleeping in his truck and will gladly bathe in the brook, go to the bathroom in the woods. This sense of connecting with nature is elemental to “Build the Wall”, glimpsed not just in Kev’s nature-loving lifestyle but the chair Kent reclines in under some trees and Sarah’s bouts of axe-throwing, first learning, then perfecting. Swanberg juxtaposes these outdoor moments with little moments of interpersonal drama stemming from consumerism, like Kent’s miniature vacuum cleaner, opening him up to mockery from Sarah. She literally orders and ships him a bigger and better dirt remover, outing his absurd insecurity, as if his small-scale existence is not enough compared to her Hollywood one, which might have been more effective had Swanberg truly explored her left coast backstory. 

Kent’s life is enough, though, which the conclusion makes clear, cutting between his lame attempts to get a fire going and a spontaneous kind of party that pops up around the wall, hosted by Kev and his gradually expanding stone-hauling workforce. The soiree is less perfunctory than, simply, perfect, transforming the wall not into a barrier for division but a rocky table for fellowship.

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