Non-traditional screenplay structures are rare. Films done in this manner done well are rarer still. So it is delightful to discover that From the Head defies the odds to present something that is a departure from most films, but also manages to remain engrossing throughout. With that said, From the Head offers more concept than story, so this won’t be a film audiences will return to beyond showing it off to friends, but for every movie lover’s first-time experience, this is one film that cinephiles won’t soon forget.
Based on the real life experiences of writer/director/actor George Griffith, From the Head is set in New York City, 1996, and follows one shift of a strip club bathroom attendant nicknamed Shoes (Griffith). On this day it’s his three-year anniversary working at the club, and while he has no plans to leave, he’s also not sure if he’ll stay. What he does know is that he’s very good at his job, which goes beyond simply pumping soap and handing paper towels to whomever comes in to use the facilities. No, Shoes is a friend, confessor, gambling advisor, comedian and whatever else his patrons need him to be. In return, he gets money put into his tip bowl.
What’s most impressive about From the Head is how much it’s able to offer with so little. Almost the entirety of the film takes place inside the men’s restroom. While a few different angles add visual variety, the camera only leaves the restroom when Shoes does, and he rarely does. In fact, audiences stay in the restroom long enough that a certain routineness will begin to settle in as the movie goes on, making the one stall, two sinks and three urinals almost familiar by the end of the film. To that end, the patrons never stay long, but their short moments speak volumes about their characters. Most of the time, audiences know everything they need to about the people who come in. Other times, they remain a mystery. Ultimately, this storytelling in microcosm elevates the film in concept beyond what most films can only wish to achieve.
The concept and non-traditional structure does have its drawbacks, however. While most films will compress a large amount of time in order to show character growth and plot, From the Head presents its events in real-time. So while Shoes does endure a personal struggle and makes some discoveries that obviously affect him, there isn’t much of a bend to his character arc. In fact, rather than being a protagonist who drives the film, Shoes acts as more of a foil to the characters around him so that they can go on their own journeys. This setup works great for this kind of film, which is more about offering a fly-on-the-wall experience than anything else, but it won’t give audiences any kind of traditional catharsis.
And yet, From the Head is eminently interesting to watch, mainly because Griffith does a spectacular job wearing all three major hats in the film. As a director he ensures that all of the performances are natural and subdued. As a writer, the film has a concept that will pique the most disinterested curiosity, and the dialogue is always snappy and full of meaning. As an actor, Griffith has the charm and charisma of any A-lister, with the looks of Sean Penn, Bill Pullman and Elvis to go along with his talent. The quick peeks into the secret lives of the men – and sometimes women – who enter the restroom also offer the one-of-a-kind interest that only human genuineness can provide. Sometimes their vulnerability is funny, like the stripper with gas. Other times, their weaknesses are heartbreaking, like the businessman who thinks a stripper honestly likes him.
From the Head is the kind of film that people who like “people watching” will enjoy. It’s for people who eavesdrop on a conversation at the next table. It’s for anyone who wonders for a moment what it must be like to walk in the shoes of the stranger they just passed. But like those thoughts and pastimes, the appeal of From the Head is fleeting and can’t be recaptured after the initial viewing. But while it lasts, the experience is fantastic.
From the Head is currently available on VOD, and will be released on DVD on July 9, 2013.