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The Unbelievable Truth (Hal Hartley) 1990   

    Perhaps the most unbelievable thing about The Unbelievable Truth is that Hal Hartley’s aesthetic, used to ironically deliver his stone-faced philosophy, arrives in this talky comedy, his first feature, fully formed. Even if this very solid film doesn’t quite attain the thematic cohesiveness of Hartley’s later Trust or Henry Fool, it is a heck of a start, even considering Hartley has remained one of the best contemporary American screenwriters over the last decade. Hartley often gets a bum rap for his direction of actors, which tends to rely on them creating a disaffected, ironic distance from the material, but I don’t think the stuff that Hartley writes would work if delivered with histrionics. The laissez faire attitude that prevails here allows his wild plot twists to feel as if they were inevitable and expected. 

    Hartley’s a master of understatement, and the film’s muted tone belies the power of his films to be completely unpredictable, even as it stands in opposition to the emotional vociferousness that his movie might provoke in the viewer. In Truth, Hartley uses the film’s middle-class Long Island setting as a springboard to attack the mores of the bourgeoisie. Chief among his social concerns are the social and financial competitiveness between people, the desire to step out of the life that one is born into (and the compromises necessary to do so), and the need to impose conformity upon each other. This description makes the film sound far more didactic than the movie is however, and there are few, if any, moments that truly feel preachy. The way that Harley generally promotes his views is through conversation, not monologue, so the film rarely feels pretentious. 

    This communal restlessness imbues the film with a sense that no one’s quite happy with things, even if they aren’t exactly miserable either. Audry (the superb Adrienne Shelly), the film’s moody and alienated teen protagonist seems to latch onto her fascination with nuclear apocalypse mostly because she doesn’t have any better way to express her dissatisfaction with the predictability of her life. The prospect of college is staring her down, but she is rather apathetic toward the notion of undergoing further conditioning, even if an Ivy League school administers it. The way the film drolly explains her point of view seems to be at odds with the sentiment at the film’s core, until you realize there’s a frustration with a society that settles for quirkiness instead of asking for more. When Audry makes her Faustian deals with her father, we realize that despite the cuteness of the situation, Hartley makes it clear that her principles, and maybe even her individualized soul, are at stake. 

* * * * 

Jeremy Heilman