Beach Pillows is writer/producer/director Sean Hartofilis’ first feature film. It’s an intimate and relatable character study of a depressed, late-20-something guy stuck in a small-town suburb as his uninspired life crumbles before his apathetic eyes. His friends use him, his girlfriend cheats on him, and his writing career never materializes, leaving him to work full time at his father’s furniture store.
The understated performance of Geoffrey Arend (500 Days of Summer, Super Troopers) as Morgan carries the film. His body language is perfect: wearing one of those permanently distressed faces, with his head hanging off his shoulders in an eternal shrug. Vincent Kartheiser is equally flawless as Nick, the charismatic best friend who effortlessly destroys everything he touches. Nick is a character that could have easily felt disingenuous or become grating, if not for Kartheiser’s sincerity and skill. It’s a far cry from his ongoing role as the complacent, entitled Pete Campbell on Mad Men, demonstrating his range.
As we watch Morgan scramble to earn some small bit of control over his life, a rabble of supporting characters drifts by with little to no development or screen time. There’s a sister, a drug dealer, a lawyer, some parents (who, of course, don’t know how to use Facebook), and a buddy who just kind of says stupid things and gets yelled at. Characters with limited face time need to come to life quickly and demonstrate humanity instantly. These don’t. It’s a difficult balancing act to make them memorable without turning them into caricatures. If you can’t avoid those traps, maybe cut them out.
Beach Pillows inhabits the self-discovery/coming-of-age genre. Here, we see late 20-somethings realizing they need to start living their lives. Used to be this story took place fresh out of high school (source: lots of ‘80s movies), but now it’s five or ten years later in life. It’s true to the times and unfortunate as all hell. Fortunately for the film, the situations and obstacles feel authentic. The atmosphere feels lived in, perhaps pulled right out of someone’s life. This movie shows us that we’ll find any excuse to delay responsibility, that we need to start somewhere, and that the future is brighter even if it’s solely because it isn’t the past.
Morgan ultimately moves forward by way of funneling the events of the film into a cathartic novel that shares the same title. It must be pretty simple for writers: finding meaning and inspiration simply by recording the movie their living on a notepad.
Despite a couple of shortcuts, Beach Pillows stands a shoulder above most comparable coming-of-age indie fare. The two leads share some of the credit, along with an engaging soundtrack that provides a vital, emotional vibe. There’s evidence of filmmaking craft here as well, which Hartofilis will surely develop in the coming years as he builds upon this accomplishment. But more than that, there’s genuine feeling. That’s the most difficult, and the most important thing to capture on film.