The Naked Ape
This is pretty much what most of the country looks like, I hope you brought music.

Theatrical Release Date: 03/30/2007 (single theater run)
Director: Daniel Mellitz
Cast: Josh Wise, Chelse Swain, Sean Shanks, Amanda MacDonald, Tony LaThanh, Corbin Bernsen

One bonus of having no life is that I have time to watch random films that few people have even heard of, let alone watched. This is the case with “The Naked Ape”.

An independent film, made for under a million dollars and having a small festival circuit run before being released at one theater in New Mexico prior to being issued on DVD, “The Naked Ape” is about three friends on a road trip before their senior year of high school. While out on the road, they come across two girls looking to leave their home lives behind and what was once a male bonding experience becomes a much more tangled web.

That’s the ultra-simplified version and a bit of a disservice but really, the plot isn’t what’s important here. Each character is undergoing some element of fundamental change in their lives. Hurtling into adulthood, they are discovering who they are as people and how they relate to the other people around them. I know that sounds cliché, and it is, but I have to say that I really identified with the film as it resonated quite strongly with experiences in my own life.

I’ve driven across the country a dozen or more times and writer/director Daniel Mellitz did the best job of presenting what’s it’s actually like to be on the road I’ve seen in a film. So often, this element is incidental to the story but as a road trip afficionado, I enjoyed reliving some of my more transient experiences.

Also, like everyone else who’s gone through their teenage years, I can relate to elements of each character. Some have the general confusion of figuring out who they’re going to be and what’s to become of their life while one of them has been living through the worst possible of home environments. So no matter how bad or good you had it, there’s something to identify with here.

To make that work, the actors all do a great job of feeling sincere and in the moment. Their performances aren’t necessarily earth-shattering but they don’t feel forced or unnatural, which is hard to attain. Also, as none of them are very famous, it helps the film maintain that more realistic feel.

Helping to maintain that element is the camera work. With no real budget to speak of, most of the lighting is done using what’s in the scene, as opposed to using big lights hidden from view. Many of the night shots were shot during the day and used filters or post production to make it look like night. Also, there is either a grainy or home video quality to much of the film that helps immerse the audience into the story.

Now, I’m not saying this film is perfect or that it’s going to draw the attention of too many award shows. I have a huge issue with Mellitz’s use of a voice-over drawn from the book “The Naked Ape”. These voice-overs are about man as a naked ape (since we tend to be quite hairless) and what elements of our social behavior mimics that of other higher primates.

In the DVD commentary, Mellitz said this element was to make the characters more universal but I think it was much more of a detriment to the heart of the story. Each time the disembodied voice interjects into the film, I’m emotionally disconnected from the characters. Moreover, the information in the voice-over is reminiscent of a junior high documentary that we all slept through, making it completely irrelevant and a nuisance.

If it wasn’t for the voice-over, I could see pumping up the rating another notch but I’m going to give a middle-of-the-road 3 out of 5 to “The Naked Ape”. If you’ve driven across the country at all and like your films peppered with a little teenage angst, then by all means see this film. However, if you’re looking for something a bit more polished and aren’t much of a character study fan, then this probably isn’t for you.

As for me, I sort of need a road trip now. If you’ll excuse me, I have to pack and make out a new playlist for my mp3 player. Take this time to read Corbin Bersen’s mini-bio on IMDB. It’s hilarious, especially the opening few lines (did he write it himself or does he have a stalker on the site’s staff?).