3 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
I saw dozens of films last year, but I attended only one premiere. It was for the Philadelphia unveiling of 21 year-old writer/director Dan Magro’s debut feature Portraits of Sari, a sugary-sweet romantic comedy with a serious Oedipus complex. Currently completing his senior year at the University of the Arts, Magro began conceptualizing the film at the age of 19, though it didn’t truly come to fruition until this past summer. Since then, it’s been making the rounds at various screenings and gaining coverage in a handful of local publications. While it’s no When Harry Met Sally…, Portraits marks its maker’s arrival as an exciting new cinematic voice.
The movie is adapted from the short story of the same name by Bucks County author Orla Loughlin, and it introduces us to Steve McNarma, a freshman at the fictitious Philadelphia Art Academy. A skilled painter since childhood, Steve has been sheltered by his smothering mother Cynthia for just as long, and his departure to college is the first time he’s been on his own. Cynthia however, refuses to keep her distance, and when a prestigious contest arises (the winner of which will be awarded a gallery showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), she deviously uses everything in her power to ensure that her son is the victor. Steve seems like a shoo-in for the win until he meets Sari Phillips, a beautiful fellow student who also enters the contest and whose talents exceed his own. Sari soon takes on the role of both rival and love interest, and Steve is forced to decide where his loyalties lie.
Steve is played by aspiring actor Ryan Windish, who was the only performer to audition for a part in the film. The rest of the cast is comprised of Magro’s friends and family, just one of the wise and thrifty choices made by the director. Susan Hoare’, a longtime friend and almost surrogate mother to Magro, plays Cynthia; and Kristin Hermes, a local Philadelphia talent who first caught Magro’s eye with her part in a recent short film, is Sari. Aleks Krutainis, an L.A.-born theater major at New Jersey’s Drew University and acquaintance of Magro’s, plays Kyle, Steve’s flamboyant roommate and Portraits’ fabulous voice of reason.
Hoare’ and Krutainis give the film’s standout performances, both of them providing just the right amount of comedic charm for which it calls. As Cynthia, Hoare’ is devilishly delightful, embodying the best type of movie villain – one we can easily love to hate. And as Kyle, Krutainis carefully steps over the pitfalls of playing a token gay character by making us believe nearly every one of his words and actions. By the time the credits roll, it’s conceivable that Kyle is already halfway to the mall, and that’s meant to be read as affectionately as possible. While Windish and Hermes have faces that were made to be photographed, they lack the personalities to match. We buy their competition, but not their romance, a potentially fatal flaw in a film of this genre. Yet, the movie survives the duo’s absence of chemistry, mainly because it’s not their exchange that drives it forward.
Portraits misleads us into thinking that the key relationship it’s nurturing is the one between Steve and Sari, when in fact, it’s the one between Steve and his mother. Sari essentially becomes a supporting player to their lead conflict, which is the film’s most dramatically effective element and has the most significant arc. Portraits is about Steve’s coming-of-age, and Cynthia is that growth’s primary obstacle. She’s a textbook poisonous parent, claiming to be concerned with her child’s best interests when in reality, focused on her own. It’s unfortunate that the two characters’ inevitable final showdown lacks the thunder we expect it to deliver, since its arrival is the storm that slowly brews through the entire film. Steve’s climactic declaration of independence is markedly anti-climactic, which results in an intentionally hopeful last scene losing much of the emotional weight it deserves.
All criticisms aside, it’s astonishing that Portraits is Magro’s first feature effort. Watching this movie, it’s easy to forget that it was crafted by a college student. From the clever opening credits to a pivotal, great-looking scene in the rain, the project’s production is bursting with technical skill. The director successfully incorporates musical montages and confessionals to advance his plot, and scenes in which he and director of photography Nick Murphy utilize natural light (most notably, in Steve and Kyle’s yoga class) look Hollywood-ready. Even the DVD I received at the premiere was encased in packaging that looked as though it could have been lifted from a shelf at Blockbuster. As a film, Portraits of Sari is average at best. As an entertainment and as the debut offering from a student filmmaker, it’s the definition of professionalism, and it establishes Magro as a future force to be reckoned with in the industry. He’s going places for sure.