Trash FireTrash Fire boasts a laugh-out-loud opening scene and a punch-to-the gut closing scene. The problem is what comes in between.

Writer/director Richard Bates Jr. third feature film occupies a strange limbo. Trash Fire is not conventional enough to generate empathy for its characters as they attempt to secure a viable future by coming to terms with past trauma. Nor is the movie outrageous enough to rank as a black comedy despite some genuinely funny moments. And while it can be identified as horror/comedy, each moment is one or the other or something closer to family drama. Genres here play like oil and water with no intermingling.

Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) are 20-somethings having an existential relationship crisis, complicated by the fact that Owen is a Grade A A-hole and Isabel has just learned that she is pregnant. The cherry on top of this dysfunctional sundae is the world’s worst therapist, played beautifully by Sally Kirkland in a too-brief appearance. The unhappy couple decide on a Hail Mary, last ditch attempt to salvage things by visiting Owen’s surviving family, his grandmother, Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) , and his sister, Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord). Surviving is the key word here as Pearl was horribly disfigured by a fire that claimed the lives of her and Owen’s parents. Owen fled as soon as he could, breaking a promise to his sister to bring her along.

And wouldn’t you know that Grandma is a hateful, acerbic, and completely controlling guardian who has confined Pearl to the attic? As family reunions go, awkward doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere here.  The quartet of actors are terrific. Grenier, and give credit to Bates Jr. here as well for his script and direction, develops his character over the course of the film so that we do see him as a real person rather than the poster boy for horrible millennials. Trimbur is simply convincing during each moment she is on screen. McCord does brilliant voice work as the disfigured sister, while Flanagan makes an outrageous villainess.

So what’s the problem? Mostly that each one of the four is in a different movie than the others, and the combinations become exponential when they appear with one another, so that a Pearl-Isabel moment has no connection to the Owen-Violet interchange that may immediately precede or follow it. The sum here is not just less than the total of the parts; it’s practically an invalid equation.

Bates Jr.’s last film, Suburban Gothic, suffered the same problem to a lesser degree, but came down more heavily on the comedic side with Kat Dennings as one of the leads and John Waters in a superb cameo. Still, there was a tonal unevenness that is even more noticeable here. Kudos to Bates Jr. for taking an original approach in his films, and he should be encouraged to continue doing so. Perhaps trial-and-error is inevitable when trying this type of cinematic experiment, but the key is to see progress from movie to movie. Unfortunately, Trash Fire registers as a slight regression.

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