'Breakfast with Curtis,' an indie about toking, joking and communal living

'Breakfast with Curtis'

Aging hippie Syd (Theo Green) films a web series with his next door neighbor Curtis (Jonah Parker) in "Breakfast with Curtis." (Courtesy Laura Colella / August 5, 2014)

Picture an aging hippie who drinks red wine all day long, walks around barefoot, peppers every third sentence with "man" for emphasis and usually has a deep cut of some '70s-era album playing on the stereo. This is Syd. Every college town, I'm convinced, has a guy like this.

He lives in a rambling plum-colored Victorian in Providence, R.I., that he has dubbed the "Purple Citadel," and the house and its environs is the heart and soul of "Breakfast with Curtis," the small but wry and indelible indie from filmmaker Laura Colella that screens Saturday at the Nightingale.

Syd is played by Theo Green, and the Purple Citadel is his home in real life. It is also Colella's home — and that of half of her cast. The other half lives next door — as they do in the film.

"I had been working on this other film," Colella told me, "a bigger project that had producers attached, and it seemed like it was finally going to happen, and then it fell through. I got frustrated so I went the opposite route and said, 'OK, what can I make for nothing?'

"I've been living with the same people in the same three-family house for about 15 years or so," she said. (Colella will talk about the film via Skype after Saturday's screening.)

"I looked around at these freaks that I live with — this kind of fun atmosphere of our household, and we're also very close to the people who live next door to us, and we spend a lot of time together, there's nine of us in all — and I got everyone together and said, 'What would you think if I wrote a script for all of us to be in, and we shoot it this summer?' And everybody jumped on board immediately."

The movie is fiction, about the wonderfully quotable and eccentric Syd, his burgeoning friendship with the withdrawn 14-year-old kid next door (that would be Curtis, played by Jonah Parker) and the laid-back, pot-smoking, backyard-partying atmosphere of the Purple Citadel itself.

The denizens include the owner of the house (an older woman who lives on the middle floor, enjoying the calm rhythms of her retirement) and Colella and her boyfriend (on the top floor). Knocking around the ground floor is Syd and his girlfriend (whom Colella has playfully named Pirate in the film). Next door live Curtis and his parents.

"You've got your indoor short-pants on!" Colella's character says when she sees Syd standing on the front porch in his boxer briefs, a glass of wine and nothing else. ""I.S.P.'s!" he says, giving those indoor short-pants an acronym nobody asked for. "It's summer, baby!"

Syd is the Lebowski of Rhode Island. He is balding but wears his graying hair long. He has a tendency to run at the mouth and decides to launch a web series to market his rare-book business. The videos are shot by Curtis, and they star Syd.

He's planning a yard sale, for example, and takes Curtis and his camera into the garage to point out what he plans to sell: "Poster tubes, books, barbecues, steamer trunks, broken-down lamps, broken bulbs, ice cubes, globes, posters from then and now, tiki lamps, tiki torches, holiday decorations, medical bags, paint brushes, bent toothbrushes, Chinese lanterns, burlap sacks, folded chairs, flat files, pieces of unidentified wood, shutters, shades, electric eels, carpets — you name it."

I asked Colella about the fuzzy line between truth and fiction in the film. Green, she said, is "definitely very much like (Syd) in real life. He'd never acted before, and it was pretty amazing that he was able to be as natural as he was and learn lines and infuse the lines with his actual personality." This is who he is, for the most part.

So much of the film's appeal lies in its easy hang-out factor, and the way it captures the lazy rhythms of summer in the overgrown garden that rings the Purple Citadel. (There is a terrific overhead shot from the top floor of the house looking down into the garden, which looks both more orderly and more chaotic from this vantage point.)

"Breakfast with Curtis" screens Friday courtesy of film writers Ben and Kat Sachs. "It played at the Siskel Center in January during one of the worst weeks of the winter," Ben told me, "and maybe 50 people saw it. Even though people can (stream) it on their own, this seems like a movie that really deserves to be seen as part of a group. That's the big reason we wanted to bring it back."

It is also a decent example of where independent filmmaking is headed. Or as Ben put it: "This blurring the line between reality and fiction, it seems like an inevitability because documentaries are cheaper to make than fiction films, especially because the technology is becoming so affordable. So it's almost like we're seeing a new kind of fiction film that's coming out of the documentary tradition."

And Colella managed to do it without turning her film into 90-minutes of navel-gazing. "She's not enamored with how interesting her life is," said Kat. "I think she just realized, hey, I'm living in a movie, I might as well exploit that."

"Breakfast with Curtis" screens 8 p.m. Saturday at the Nightingale. Go to nightingalecinema.org.

Analyzing 'Fiddler'

Film critic Jan Lisa Huttner comes to the Chicago area next week with her lecture series on "Fiddler on the Roof," the Broadway musical and 1971 film adaptation, both inspired by the stories of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Huttner will present "From Gold to Diamond: Moving Beyond Our Father's 'Fiddler'" at the Northbrook Public Library (2 p.m. Wednesday), the Harold Washington Library (6 p.m. Thursday) and the Wilmette Public Library (2 p.m. Aug. 19). Go to chicagoyivo.org.

Foreign films on WTTW

The Soviet Union in the 1950s wasn't a place where rock 'n' roll hepcats seemed likely to thrive, and who knows how much of the underground subculture depicted in the 2008 movie musical "Hipsters" actually existed. Whether it is pure fantasy or something closer to reality, the film is an exuberant look at the youth rebellion fueled by pompadours, jiving dance grooves and that forbidden music from the West. It airs at 10 p.m. Friday on WTTW-Ch. 11 as part of an ongoing series of films honoring the 50th anniversary of the Chicago International Film Festival. Each month, WTTW will spotlight movies from CIFF's history. For info go to chicagofilmfestival.com or schedule.wttw.com.

Black Harvest

The Black Harvest Film Festival continues at the Siskel Film Center with "The 4th Meeting," a drama from the Chicago siblings Josh MacNeal (writer and director) and Cy Weisman (writer and producer) about a career woman who struggles with survivor's guilt after the death of her husband in a car accident. MacNeal and Weisman will be at both screenings for a Q&A. 8:30 p.m. Friday and 8:30 p.m. Thursday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/4th_meeting.

nmetz@tribune.com

@NinaMetzNews

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