Some titles tell you, if not the plot of a film, the overall tone a movie is going to have. If you hear a title like “The Atlantic City Story,” which is currently showing at the Denver Film Festival, you may suspect that the movie will be, at minimum, tinged with sadness. After all, Atlantic City may have been a bustling city once upon a time, but it’s recent history—at least as widely reported—has been one of loss and despair.
Written and directed by Henry Butash, those suspicions about generally negative feelings and sensibilities based solely upon the title of the work would be perfectly accurate. Any viewer of this tale of one middle-aged woman, Jane Carver, spending a few days in Atlantic City will quickly find themselves stuck in a swamp of distress.
It may not sound it, but I mean this last in completely positive fashion – Butash’s film, and the work of Jessica Hecht as Jane, are mesmerizing. Yes, the piece is a sad one, but it is gorgeously sad, and it is from the outset, from the moment that Jane decides to leave her suburban New Jersey at the very beginning. There are scenes of triumph and happiness along the way, perhaps like Atlantic City itself, but far more often than not, there is the sense that Jane is just going through the motions, she knows that the best of times are behind her, but she has to keep trudging forward.
That said, Jane does indeed find some companionship in Atlantic City, this in the form of Arthur (Mike Faist). This is a younger man (somewhere approaching 30 or not too far past the decade mark, it would appear) whom Jane picks out at the roulette table just because she likes the way he holds the chips. Not quite knowing what she wants, this burgeoning friendship tilts somewhere between parental and romantic love as the two get to know each other. It is also vaguely dangerous as we, just like Jane, initially know nothing about Arthur except that he doesn’t mind sitting out in the cold rain and has little to no money.
Crucially for the movie, Jane taking Arthur under her wing and helping him winds up feeling less altruistic than it does needy. The act of buying him shoes when she notices that his have holes is a cry for help on her part more than it is an attempt to help someone else and it is not the only time we see it. This is, again, the crux of the movie – these are sad people looking for less sadness wherever they can find it: the gambling table, bad French fries, or their own good feelings for buying someone else shoes.
With cinematography by Justin Derry, nearly every frame in “Atlantic City Story” captures the idea of loneliness. We see empty parking lots, a seemingly abandoned boardwalk, desolate hotels. Except for those brief moments of happiness, Jane and Arthur, on a visual level, seem as though they’re alone even when they’re together. Everything about the movie screams of sadness and isolation.
Playing out in slow, contemplative, fashion, we are left to our own thoughts about motivations and desires as we watch these two adults attempting to navigate both this new friendship and their larger problems. We study their faces, look for hints of motivation, and worry for them. We worry for them so very much.
How much is Jane looking to fix her marital problems via Arthur? How much is she trying to mother someone new now that there is no one at home for her to mother? How much does Arthur need that mothering? How much does he need a friend? How much does he need a push in the right direction to get his life back on track?
Some of these questions asked by the viewer have clear answers and some do not, but still, but the time the movie ends, it feels like a complete story.
And then, there is the most important question: what, exactly, does the future hold for Jane or Arthur or Atlantic City itself? There are conclusions that one can draw, but, all too often they are unhappy ones. There is an argument to be made that the future is brightest for Arthur, that Jane has helped put him on the right track, but I’m not entirely sure that I’d want to make that bet. I’m also not sure that the movie does anything to convince me to drive to this seaside New Jersey destination at any point in the future, near or far.
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