ROGERS PARK Review: Breaking Through Midwestern Psychosis

“If I’m feeling a little neglected, I just put up with it.”

Photo credit: Rogers Park/IMDb

It’s been a while since a character has so pithily and accurately described the toxicity of Midwestern politeness. Delivered near the end of Rogers Park, the line perfectly describes the attitude of the far-North Side Chicago neighborhood of the film’s title. It’s an oddly self-contained place that feels separate from the rest of the city, for better and worse—it’s the rare truly diverse community in an otherwise woefully segregated town, but the area could certainly use some monetary love from City Hall. Left to their own devices, Rogers Park residents work on filling potholes and gang violence, but mostly they fixate on their their relationships, jealousies, depression, and philosophical arguments, while the rest of Chicago ignores them. They know they’re ignored, but they carry on anyway.

That’s the backdrop for the tale of two middle-aged couples in Rogers Park, directed by indie filmmaker Kyle Henry and written by Carlos Treviño. There’s political operative Deena (Christine Horn) and her depressed writer boyfriend Chris (Jonny Mars). Then there’s Chris’s kindergarten principal sister Grace (Sara Sevigny) and her realtor husband Zeke (Antoine McKay). There’s also a lifetime of bad blood, pettiness, money troubles, and painful mistakes. Told over the course of three seasons, from fall to spring, Treviño’s script—written with improvisational input from the principal actors—traces the tumult and screaming matches that accompany personal growth.

Treviño’s structure keeps Rogers Park grounded and gives it a sense of momentum and change. Every fall scene is fraught with peril, with each character barely able to contain their disdain for each other and their stations in life. Henry and cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos set the scene with establishing shots of Lake Michigan’s waves crashing onto the shore, or the forest-like look of the neighborhood’s trees, or the alderman’s office located in a mini-mall, or the ubiquitous murals that decorate the public transit stations in the area. There are shivers in the air to match these characters’ cooling relationships with each other. Chris gives a toast at his sister and brother-in-law’s anniversary party that begins graciously and, as he is unable to shake the chilliness he feels for his sister over her absence during a recent family emergency, devolves into something more hostile and embarrassing for all involved.

That place setting fades as the film shifts to winter and spring, as probable budgetary constraints limit the location shooting. This turns Rogers Park into something of a mumblecore chamber piece, a drama that would feel more at home on the stage than on the screen. The sparsely decorated apartments and houses where pivotal scenes take place feel more generic than the earliest section suggested. The camera fixates on the actors’ faces, and the pain and indecision wrinkling their brows. This brings risk, because if the actors aren’t up to snuff, the film can fall apart when it ups the intimacy.

Thankfully, for the most part, the main cast of the film succeeds, especially Antoine McKay and Sara Sevigny as Zeke and Grace. As their married characters finally reach a place of economic stability—Zeke earns a windfall of a commission from selling a nearby mansion—they don’t know what to do with themselves, and the self-destruction kicks in. Zeke, who under normal circumstances is a cuddly and good-natured man, is also wracked with insecurities about his roles as provider, father, and husband. He feels underappreciated, which leads him to neglect and underappreciate his family through silence—a former drummer in a band, he taps away at a drum pad in the middle of the night while he stews about giving up the music he loved. Thanks to his insecurity, he makes a bad investment, and he can never convince himself that stability is better than risky ambition. When creditors start calling his wife, though, the jig is up, and one bad decision made out of stress leads to more stress and more mistakes. John Fecile’s editing builds a nice rhythm with this relationship, holding shots longer if they show one or both of them breaking a little more or making a life-altering (ruining?) misstep.

There’s a bit more cinematic strain in the Deena-Chris relationship, and the improvisational seams begin to show when things get heated with Chris, a character who feels like nobody will give him his due for the sacrifices he’s made for his family—without telling them he feels this way. Jonny Mars’s line deliveries often feel under-rehearsed, especially when he gets angry. The emotion never seems to overcome him, but rather one can tell that the wheels are turning in his head as he thinks about what Chris would do next rather than simply doing it, which can leave Christine Horn hanging out to dry with imperfect emotions to react to—she begins to feel a little stranded in their scenes. Mars often remains an arm’s length away from his character’s poor mental state, and only seems to truly embody Chris after he’s calmed his nerves through months of therapy.

It’s no surprise that Rogers Park finds itself through those therapeutic moments, much like Chris. It is only through talking, through actually confronting the emotions these people feel, that they find out where they stand with each other. They can either continue to neglect each other and themselves by hiding from their feelings and pretending everything’s fine, or they can acknowledge what’s wrong and try to fix it. But, you know, good luck with getting Midwesterners to do that.

Director: Kyle Henry
Writer: Carlos Treviño
Starring: Christine Horn, Jonny Mars, Antoine McKay, Sara Sevigny
Available now in limited release

ROGERS PARK Review: Breaking Through Midwestern Psychosis ROGERS PARK Review: Breaking Through Midwestern Psychosis Reviewed by Rob Samuelson on Friday, April 06, 2018 Rating: 5
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