John J. Budion’s first feature, “Rockaway,” which opens Friday, January 11th, in limited release as well as streaming (including on Amazon and iTunes) and on video-on-demand, is an old-school independent film. It’s the work of an outsider, though one of a very insider-y kind. Budion, who wrote and directed the film, is a young veteran of the movie business—a longtime video-effects artist (on films including “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Zoolander 2”) and a prominent director of TV commercials. As a title card at the beginning of “Rockaway” states, the film is “inspired by true events,” and its basis in Budion’s painful experience accounts for both its terrifying emotional urgency and its aesthetics. The film is at the same time intensely personal and riddled with occasionally cringe-inducing clichés. No matter: “Rockaway” is an agonized and sharply moving film.
Set over the course of a single week in June, 1994, in East Rockaway (in Nassau County), it’s the story of two brothers, John (Maxwell Apple), who’s in primary school, and Anthony (Keidrich Sellati), who’s on the verge of adolescence. (It’s narrated from the present-day perspective by the grown-up John, played by Frankie J. Alvarez.) The boys live in a state of terror; they are brutalized by their father (Wass Stevens), who beats them and their mother, Linda (Marjan Neshat). As the film begins, the family reaches a state of crisis: Linda is planning to take the boys and leave her husband. She assures them that they have only one more week of terror to live through; but the boys have a plan of their own, a reckless and dangerous plan of vengeance that they intend to put into motion as soon as they can.
The week in question, June 13th through June 20th, is of dramatic and historical significance: the New York Knicks were then in the N.B.A. finals, playing for the championship. The sports-loving brothers are pulling hard for the team, and John is fixated on one player, the team’s unlikely star, John Starks (whose jersey he wears constantly), who looms large in his active fantasy life. A budding artist whose work in crayon and chalk runs through the film, he exerts his imagination as an escape from the terrors of his daily life, with Anthony’s help—the two boys, isolated in their despair, have a hideout of sheets and blankets in their room, where John dreams big and vengeful dreams and Anthony lightens the atmosphere with goofy scatological stories. Budion dramatizes the brothers’ terror, their solitude, and their coping mechanisms in a handful of precise and tactile details, as when, having been beaten by his father for a tiny tear in his t-shirt, John realizes, while playing, that he has torn it again; when the boys play stickball with a tennis ball that they’ve stolen from a local club; or when they walk home from the schoolyard in fading light, in a detail reminiscent of one that the late critic and scholar Gilberto Perez pointed out to me, from Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves”: John’s many quick, short steps make for a striking, lyrical contrast with the taller Anthony’s slower, longer strides.
On the basketball court, John and Anthony, who are apparently friendless—seemingly unable to allow others to get close enough for a glimpse at their horrific lives—meet another group of boys, led by the forthright Billy (Harrison Wittmeyer), who suggests that the brothers join them in a “friendly game” of basketball. The wary Anthony says, “We would have to be friends”; Billy promptly introduces himself, extending a hand for Anthony to shake. The group of boys includes the intellectual Brian (Tanner Flood), whom Billy self-consciously protects from the abrasive milieu; the tough-talking sparkplug Dom (James DiGiacomo); and the comedic motormouth Sal (Colin Critchley). Budion brings the new friendships to life with the immediacy of sharp memory and deep-rooted warmth. The particular liberation that Anthony experiences when he’s able to speak with Billy (whose parents are divorced) about the abuse that he, John, and their mother endure is quiet, limpid, and all the more powerful for its plain and brisk simplicity.
The six boys’ new intimacy is matched by a round of ball-breaking and roughhousing that’s perched on the borderline of clichés and insights. The white working-class boys are nearly stock characters, but the details of their interactions, personal and sociological, are finely observed. At a private tennis club (from which they steal tennis balls) they’re viewed as “thugs” (except for Brian, who’s up for membership in it). They deride as “Bradleys” the private-school kids who, in official uniforms, challenge them to a game of baseball and rely on some unwarranted violence (albeit depicted comedically and impressionistically in slow motion and filtered through visual representations of John’s fantasies) to get through the game.
The boys, led by the fast-talking Sal, engage in aggressive verbal flirtation with a local girl named Gina (Sophia Rose), who gives back as tough as she gets but is nonetheless on her guard. One of the boys casually uses a homophobic slur, which another boy playfully but meaningfully deflects. Here, too, Budion sees clearly that the boyish rowdiness that comes off as playful has an element of danger—that it risks tipping over into the kind of violence that the boys’ father displays. There’s a remarkable scene, when the crude and venomous father, seeing the six boys assembled outside the house en route to their baseball game, comes out and plays good father for the group to see. Anthony and John, of course, see through his veneer of boastful bonhomie, and when their father takes up a bat and cocks it to swing, reminiscing about his own ballplaying days, its barrel waves ominously in the frame in front of Anthony and John, the plaything transformed in his hands and in their eyes into a weapon at the ready.
The historical background of the boys’ lives comes through in their Knicks-fandom—they gather to watch the fifth game, which (as actually happened) is interrupted and punctuated by the highway chase of O. J. Simpson, the significance of which is expressly addressed by the boys, as if in an echo of the domestic violence that they’re facing. Yet, for all the fine-grained observation, there’s also an overly emphatic element of metaphor laid atop it, as when, throughout, in relation to their plot against their father, John and Anthony refer to “one shot” that will “change everything.” The boys’ relationship with their mother is warm, tender, and complicit, but somewhat impersonal, more symbolic than substantive. Crucial moments in the action are depicted in an impressionistic slow motion that reduce them to illustrations of plot points (albeit highly dramatic and significant ones) and cut the scenes off from their practical consequences and implications.
Strangely, however, these lapses of clumsiness underscore the emotional tenor of the film, rather than marring or disrupting it; they come off as markers of yet-unassimilated anguish, as symptoms of torment that the years haven’t assuaged. Far from psychologizing the father or attempting to comprehend his violence, Budion presents the character as a black hole of emotional deadening, a vortex of doom and a void of absurdity that the adult character of John continues to cope with to this day, despite all of his attempts to escape it.
The irrational cruelty of the boys’ experiences seemingly defies narrative and, as with other stories of survival, it requires the highest realms of artistry to give them form. “Rockaway” is a survivor’s film, and it’s seemingly warped by the agony of the experiences that Budion is trying to relate. His effort to create a dramatic form and a personal style in which to do so comes off both as a transparent mask behind which he hides things that are still unbearable to recall and as a sincere attempt to invent a manner that’s appropriate to his story’s intensity. As a result, even its awkward missteps are moving.