THE BLOCK ISLAND SOUND (2020)

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Studio:      Hood River Entertainment
Director:    The McManus Brothers
Writer:      The McManus Brothers
Producer:  Kevin McManus, Matthew McManus, Andrew van den Houten, Ashleigh Snead
Stars:     Michaela McManus, Chris Sheffield, Neville Archambault, Ryan O¡¯Flanagan, Matilda Lawler, Jeremy Holm, Jim Cummings

Review Score:

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Summary:

An estranged family comes together when a mysterious force lurking off the coast of their small town causes a series of strange events.


Synopsis:     

Review:

Researchers routinely remove animals from their natural habitats for scientific studies. Objectives are often based on species preservation, environmental conservation, or other benevolent intentions to protect, evolve, and better understand nature.

What if extraterrestrial or paranormal entities regard humans the same way? What if equivalent experimentation necessitates plucking a person off the planet for observation or to further a greater goal beyond the limits of our comprehension? When we fulfill our unknown purpose, we might then be dropped back where we came from with no more of an idea about what happened than a trout has after a fisherman throws it back into the water.

That¡¯s one of the concepts behind ¡°The Block Island Sound.¡± Tom has been waking from random trances recently to find himself on his boat, staring at his neighbor¡¯s dog, or absent-mindedly overfilling a water pitcher with no recollection of the immediately preceding minutes. Tom¡¯s son Harry doesn¡¯t want to admit his father might be developing dementia. Harry already lost his mother and can¡¯t stand to lose his other parent too, so he chalks up Tom¡¯s blackouts to sleepwalking and momentary confusion.

Coincidentally, Harry¡¯s estranged sister Audry happens to be back in the area on an EPA assignment to investigate several tons of dead fish that have been washing ashore. If Harry¡¯s Weekly World News-reading friend Dale is to be believed, the fish connect to flocks of dead birds that have been dropping all over the world. Something strange certainly appears to be going on and Block Island could be sitting on an epicenter.

Harry isn¡¯t sure what to think until he starts suffering from sudden trances similar to Tom¡¯s. Suspicions that alcoholism could be to blame fan the flames of contention that already smolder between Harry and Audry. Family ties continue cracking as the mystery mounts, with Tom and Harry¡¯s increasingly bizarre behavior possibly putting Audry¡¯s young daughter in danger from whatever invisible monster may be manipulating the two men¡¯s minds.

¡°The Block Island Sound¡± plays like how a conversational Edward Burns movie might be if psychological suspense darkened that brand of homespun indie atmosphere. Locations include a neighborhood bar, a greasy spoon diner, and a grocery store. Everyday faces feature emotionally distant siblings, vague love interests, and a police chief who knows everyone¡¯s first name. Block Island has a vibrant working class buzz and follows the grounded drama regularly found in small town territory, but it¡¯s sprayed with a translucent patina of supernatural color.

Troubled relationships and personal struggles don¡¯t completely dominate the tone. As with their excellent work producing and writing smart shows such as ¡°American Vandal¡± and ¡°Cobra Kai,¡± brothers Kevin and Matthew McManus have a knack for slipping in sharp humor that can cut without leaving a conspicuous blood trail. Their comedy steams and evaporates without calling undue attention to itself. ¡°The Block Island Sound¡± employs this technique well. In one exchange, Audry¡¯s little daughter follows up Harry¡¯s flippant drug remark by innocently asking, ¡°what¡¯s crack?¡± Without skipping a beat, her oblivious uncle casually comments, ¡°it¡¯s like cocaine but you can smoke it.¡±

Quick hits like these provide pepper so dialogue never becomes dried out by exposition. Jim Cummings gets to chew on a bigger bite of comic relief as conspiracy kook Dale. In keeping with the snark¡¯s subtlety, Cummings refrains from going full ¡°Lone Gunmen¡± with a tinfoil hat-wearer¡¯s tics. He just rides a light wave of affable oddness to make the characterization cute. Even tightly-wound Harry, played by Matthew Modine and Ron Howard lovechild Chris Sheffield, can¡¯t unleash his anger when Dale piles on another ¡°how you holding up?¡± in the wake of a devastating tragedy. Harry knows Dale¡¯s awkwardness just gets in the way of good intentions.

Understated nuances help ¡°The Block Island Sound¡¯s¡± ordinary people become sympathetic personalities. As Audry, Michaela McManus doesn¡¯t have any big blowout breakdowns or similar scenes typically seen in awards ceremony clips. She simply embodies a solid single mother who is believably blue collar. Sharing that trait with her castmates creates a roster of relatable folks who magnetize engagement instead of uncoupling attention spans with their orchestrated averageness.

Movies where people frequently fall into trances usually end up echoing the sleepiness of their dreamy descents into gradual madness. ¡°The Block Island Sound¡± moves with a soft step, but it¡¯s a slow burn whose quiet tension actually burns. It¡¯s only ambiguous enough to frustrate those who want a definitive destination at the end of the journey, which is somewhere ¡°The Block Island Sound¡± doesn¡¯t take us. Much of the personal drama isn¡¯t resolved either. But is it ever fully sorted in real life? That seems to be one of the film¡¯s thematic suggestions.

¡°The Block Island Sound¡± is about the moves we are willing to make to sidestep harsh truths, to save our loved ones, and to ignore the consequences of uncomfortable realities. The film doesn¡¯t get in the viewer¡¯s face with its philosophizing. It¡¯s there to peel at if the various conflicts speak to you. If they don¡¯t, then interest is liable to get lost.

Light sways into cerebral subject matter don¡¯t swing drastically. A primarily to-the-point approach remains rooted in straightforwardness. Although not as paranoid, ¡°The Block Island Sound¡¯s¡± eerie style would pair well with something like ¡°They Look Like People¡± (review here). It¡¯s not the sort of thriller that scorches with white-hot heat. But it¡¯s good at being gripping while only using a limited box of indie filmmaking tools.

Review Score: 75