Take a Penny (2014) – By Cary Conley

By anyone’s definition, Nick is having a bad year.  Multiple funerals, deceased pets, and the end of a long romantic relationship have all contributed to what Nicks calls “The Year That Will Never End”.  No one would blame him for just curling up in a ball and having a full-fledged nervous breakdown.  Instead, Nick is trying to deal with the several curveballs life has thrown at him the best that he can, which includes frequent trips to the local watering hole to drown his sorrows in a few glasses of Scotch.

He’s even found a website that helps him predict his own impending death by analyzing his medical history and giving him the total number of weeks he has left to live.  Each week is represented by a penny which Nick has put into a jar, removing one when the week is over.  But just as he has reached what he hopes is rock bottom, he meets an attractive young woman in town.  After a bit of flirting and a chance encounter at a bar, things start looking up for Nick.

Michael McCallum is an extremely talented Lansing-area filmmaker with a long history of quality feature films and shorts to his name.  He has directed some comedy films (Handlebar, Waiter from Hell) which are funny in their own right.  But his strength is with character dramas.  Take a Penny is no different—a high quality snapshot into one man’s spiraling world and the change he feels when he meets someone new.

Quentin Tarantino has become famous for his rapid-fire, blackly humorous, and nearly-pornographic dialogue.  It’s fast, sharp, and witty in a gallows kind of way, if more than a little unrealistic.  McCallum’s dialogue writing is equally sharp, but is much more gentle and authentic than anything Tarantino could write.  McCallum’s dialogue is just one of his many strengths as a filmmaker.  In fact, what attracts me to his films so much is the gentleness he uses to tell his dramas.  Take a Penny is similar to many of his films in that the 18-minute story unfolds languidly, even quietly.  Many directors will tell you they dread filming long dialogue scenes because they fear slowing the plot down and losing the attention of the viewers. McCallum actually embraces these kinds of scenes.  Take a Penny is essentially three fairly long dialogue scenes broken up by a handful of transitions.  But the viewer doesn’t get bored because the dialogue rings true.  The viewers identify with Nick because they’ve had years filled with trials; they’ve had broken relationships; they’ve had painfully awkward meetings with exes; and they’ve had equally awkward, but also pleasantly exciting, meetings with potential new mates.  And in each of these cases Nick says exactly what we might imagine we would say if we were in the same situation.  It’s this sense of realism that makes the viewer forget he or she is watching a film and allows us to become immersed in the details of this conversation we’ve all had ourselves.

But while the story is imbued with a deep sense of melancholy, McCallum also delivers some humor, again ever so gently.  The humor isn’t laugh-out-loud, knee-slapping humor, but the quiet and sometimes ironic humor shared between two friends.  It makes us smile and makes us happy that Nick is also able to smile a bit as well.  It is a testament to McCallum’s writing skills that he is able to balance the melancholy and humor so well.

McCallum always surrounds himself with superior craftsmen and –women and this film is no different.  This time he has partnered with Andrew K. Tebeau whose primary role was as cinematographer, but who also edited the sound and even shared film editing duties with McCallum.  Tebeau’s camerawork is superb, with slow, graceful movements interspersed with more static shots.  The scene where Nick talks to his ex-girlfriend at a bar as well as a scene in a pet shop are examples of this.  Sound recording by Anthony “Tucker” Amirante is also top notch.  While this may seem nitpicky, it cannot be overstated how important clear sound is to a film.  Too many indie films suffer from poor sound recording, so I’m always appreciative when this aspect of the film is of good quality. Other strengths include the small primary cast of Elizabeth Moore, who plays Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Christine Williams the quirky pet shop cashier, and McCallum himself as Nick.  

And, as usual, McCallum is able to complete the whole package with wonderfully appropriate musical selections, recorded by regional talents.  The songs are, again, quiet and perhaps a bit sad, but they blend perfectly with the atmosphere McCallum creates for the film.  Each number is excellent, but special mention goes to “Stardust and Bromide” by Jo Serrapere and especially to the hauntingly beautiful “Lonely at the End of the World” by Danielle Cherry.

Take a Penny is a wonderful little gem about love and loss with an ending that will surprise the viewer with one last emotional punch in the gut.  The film has just been completed with festival dates to be announced soon.  For more information about this film and McCallum’s other films, go to www.rebelpictures.net.