BUFF – ‘Tone-Deaf’ Prioritises Style Over Substance

Richard Bates Jr. turns his lens to the generational gap in Tone-Deaf, which had its East Coast premiere at Boston Underground Film Festival in March and hits cinemas this August. We bounce between Olive (Amanda Crew), newly unemployed and single – a basic incarnation of every white girl you see on Instagram stories, and Harvey (a perfectly cast Robert Patrick), a cantankerous old coot with a murderous streak. After Olive loses her boyfriend and job in one fell swoop, she rents out Harvey’s country home for the weekend and cluelessly wanders into his line of fire.

Bates draws heavy parallels between his protagonist and her would-be killer: stuck in their viewpoints and sensitive to criticism, they make for natural enemies. Olive, left adrift by life, searches for meaning during her getaway, determined to unplug from her elite coastal life and buried trauma and find catharsis in Tinder hookups and recreational drugs. Harvey, for his turn, broods in his reclusive cabin, haunted by dementia-driven hallucinations and radiating an anger so powerful that it shatters the fourth wall. At first, he kills at random, giving in to long-latent psychopathic tendencies, but Olive’s antics draw his eye, and she serves as a vessel upon which to unleash his Baby Boomer brand of resentment.

If this sounds like a misanthropic think-piece you’d find in the disillusioned corners of Twitter, that’s because, at its core, it is. But to write Tone-Deaf off entirely just for its clumsily wielded societal microscope is to miss out on 87 minutes of genuine laughs, scares, and, even more shocking, a few insightful lines of commentary. Sure, Olive and Harvey exist as little more than avatars for generational critiques they’re more caricatures than characters but at least we have a bit of fun with them.

Rather than setting its sights on any sense of nuance, Tone-Deaf’s brand of satire sits firmly in exaggeration. It invites audiences into something of a funhouse mirror, warping our society into something so over-the-top and unrecognisable that we can mock it without care. This is a vapid world, and all we can do in the face of the meaninglessness it offers is laugh. And laugh we do: Tone-Deaf’s humour is rife with schadenfreude, its particular brand of offbeat cynicism providing the bright light in what would otherwise be a tired effort.

Bates, who also penned the script, tends to observe rather than critique, particularly when it comes to its take on millennial entitlement. It shows us the most vapid of youthful behaviours talking trash about someone in the same room via text, getting high out of sheer boredom without investigating the mindset driving the vanity our generation has been accused of. Perhaps that’s a relief. The film is busy enough showcasing the misogyny and homophobia that characterises the very worst of the boomers without digging into why we can’t get off our dang phones. Millennial audiences will instead find the a chance to see humour in the very worst of our tendencies.

Other concepts simmer under the surface, never to be fleshed out. A shot connecting Harvey’s and Olive’s keyboards centers their shared self-righteousness around the isolating effects of technology, but their relationships with the digital world are only ever left for plot devices. The early, traumatic loss of Olive’s father guides her search for herself, but the effect of grief on Olive’s family never quite feels weighty enough to be reckoned with. And a subplot surrounding Olive’s hippy, commune-living mother is used for little more than a deus ex machina and a memorable scene bossing around her eager, much-younger lover while in bed. Because Bates never quite dives into these ideas, we’re left on the shore with his clever dialogue, dynamic visuals, and twisted set pieces. At least there are no jokes about avocado toast.

by Megan Sergison

Megan Sergison is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, where she studied International Affairs and largely spent her time in undergrad watching movies on planes. She loves films that include witty dialogue, complicated women, and colorful cinematography, especially those of the coming-of-age persuasion.  Her favorite films include Juno, Moonrise Kingdom, Moonlight, and Call Me By Your Name. She can be found staring wistfully out the windows of public transit while listening to film scores or over on Twitter at @megserg, where Barry Jenkins also follows her and once liked her tweet about Mitski.

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