Roger (William C. McCallum) is an aging cabdriver and also a loner. His circle of friends—the other cabdrivers he must mingle with during shift change—is about all the people he knows. His only true friend is Scooter, his old blue-tick hound. Yes, Roger is a loner and he likes it that way. He suffers silently during shift meetings at the cab company, puts in his time behind the wheel, and rushes home to spend time with Scooter.
One day he comes home to an alarming message on his phone. It seems his past has finally caught up with him. His ex-wife from nearly four decades past has died and he’s been asked to attend the funeral. The thing is, if he goes, he’ll also have to face the son he abandoned even before the child’s birth—the son he’s never even seen.
Urged on by the knowledge he is dying, Roger decides to make the road trip from Lansing, Michigan, to upstate New York. Unsure of exactly what he’s going to do when he gets there, he steals a cab from the cab company and heads east. Along the way he meets several people that help him make what is likely going to be the most important decision of his life. But what he doesn’t know is that he is also helping each of these people make important decisions themselves.
Buffalo is writer/director Michael McCallum’s fourth feature film. If that name sounds familiar to some of you readers, that’s because McCallum’s previous films have all been award-winning features that have made a significant impact on the festival circuit (a total of 43 major awards with an additional 32 other nominations from an astounding 82 film festivals across the globe!). While McCallum has made occasional forays into comedy (his feature Handlebar and short series Waiter from Hell spring to mind), he knows where his bread is buttered, so most of his films (including well over a dozen shorts) are pure drama. And drama is where he truly excels. His maiden feature, Fairview St., was a tour-de-force of emotional power and he’s become well-known for his dramatic pieces. But while Fairview St. was drama in the truest sense, Buffalo isn’t nearly as emotionally draining as the former film. That’s not to say, however, that Buffalo doesn’t deal with important issues. McCallum’s greatest gift is the ability to craft a story that addresses mature, contemporary issues in a realistic way. But this time around, McCallum has chosen to tell his story in a gentler manner. If fact, “gentle” is the word that immediately came to mind as I sat back to watch Buffalo.
Roger certainly has made some mistakes in his life. He knows this, and he regrets these poor decisions. But in his heart, Roger is a gentle soul. He mourns for the family he left, as evidenced by the photos and 8 mm films he has kept even after so many decades. The viewer has the sense that Roger is guilt-ridden, even melancholy. In fact, his isolation may be his way of atoning for his sins. But Roger has learned one tremendous lesson from his early mistakes, and that is simply to do no harm to his fellow man if he can keep from it.
This lesson manifests itself in the way Roger deals with his customers. When he encounters a veteran whose marriage is falling apart, he pulls over, stops the meter, and forces this man who is hurting so much to talk about the pain. In the long run, this short conversation may not heal Roger’s fare, but perhaps this is the first time someone has taken the time to really listen to the pain this young man is going through. And just maybe it provides the impetus for him to seek help.
In fact, the next person in Roger’s car may actually provide the final impetus for Roger to make his road trip. Roger is assigned to train the new cabbie, Ben (Erik Keener). During the initial training Roger listens to Ben’s story. Ben has lost his wife and is afraid he’s going to lose his little girl as well, which is why he’s taken this job—his first attempt at becoming stable and transforming himself into a real parent for his daughter. Hearing Ben’s story and later rescuing Ben during a particularly harrowing night as a new cabbie, Roger realizes that he, too, must finally step up to the plate.
At its core, Buffalo is a film about family and a film about loss. Each person Roger encounters forces him to examine his life a bit more closely. Regardless of the fare, each person Roger converses with reminds him of the sacred bond of family as well as the steep price Roger himself paid when he chose to leave his own family. And then there is Ginger (Barb Dalman), the lonely barmaid who has lost everyone who was dear to her. She goes through the motions of life much as Roger has been doing, but the pair hit it off when Roger meets her at a late-night pit stop at her bar. In a giant leap of faith for both, they take a chance on each other. The relationship that develops between these two lost souls helps to crystallize the importance of bringing closure to Roger’s life, which is growing far too short. Leaving Scooter with Ginger, he heads to the funeral and the unknown. Will Roger have the courage to attend the funeral? Will he have the courage to finally meet the son he’s dreamed about but never met? You’ll have to see Buffalo yourself to find the answers to these questions.
Buffalo is as thematically rich as McCallum’s previous films. The film is sad, perhaps even melancholy, but gentle. You may not produce tears for these characters, but you do feel for them and their troubles. McCallum also creates a sense of the bittersweet better than perhaps any director working today. His films are infused with both sadness and gentle humor, punctuated with occasional flourishes of raunchier laughs (the 8 mm footage of the young lady lifting her skirt to scratch her buttock while unknowingly being filmed comes to mind), with the whole being much more than the sum of the parts.
The film was co-written by McCallum and his father William, who also stars as Roger. Perhaps the greatest strength in the McCallum’s writing is the sense of reality they bring to the film. These characters seem real. I know people like this. The viewer will know people like this. The situations these characters deal with are the same as hundreds of thousands of real-life people who are dealing with the same troubles, which is why the viewer can identify with Roger and the others so well. The dialogue seems absolutely accurate. In fact, there are several instances where characters interrupt other characters or attempt to say something only to be cut off. In lesser hands these scenes might be blamed on poor directing or delivery. But McCallum makes these exchanges seem absolutely authentic. It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t purposefully ask his actors to improvise much of the dialogue to make the conversations more authentic.
Equally strong is the cinematography by A. Scott. The camera glides very slowly and smoothly across scenes at diners and in bars and other establishments, punctuated by unmoving shots within the cab. Another strength—as always—is McCallum’s soundtrack. His choice of songs by local and regional talent is always spot on and ranges from brief snippets of rock to country with the overall sound being one of folksy/bluesy acoustic tunes. But perhaps the greatest strength in this particular film is the sound design and editing by Joseph McCargar and River City Studios Ltd. It is simply superb, ranging from footsteps crunching in the gravel to train horns blowing by in the distance.
Simply put, Buffalo is this year’s must-see independent film. It’s a gentle, bittersweet drama that’s puts anything Hollywood can produce to shame. Buffalo is premiering at Lansing’s Celebration Cinema festival from September 21 – September 28. For more information about the film, see www.buffalothemovie.com or www.rebelpictures.net.