COUNTING FOR THUNDER: A Missed Opportunity
Partly autobiographical, Counting for Thunder is a film that sometimes works, but mostly fails in its attempt to blend both drama and comedy.
After a career as an actor, Phillip Irwin Cooper returned home to the south due to family circumstances; these events would inspire Cooper to make Counting for Thunder. Initially, the story would find itself in a one-man show by Cooper. The experience of putting on that show gave him the ambition to write, direct, act and co-produce the film adaptation. Unfortunately, because of this, the film comes across as an amateur passion project that needed guidance and nurturing by seasoned filmmakers.
A Time of Self-Reflection
The film opens with a brief moment showing the roots of the main character, Phillip. From the get-go it’s apparent he has a special connection with his mother (Mariette Hartley), and their offbeat relationship seems obscure to his sister (Alison Elliott) and father (John Heard). However, Phillip leaves Alabama with the dream of making it in the City of Angels as an actor. We meet him as a slaving personal assistant to an actress, as he is denied roles because of his age. As his career plummets, his sister calls to let him know that their mother is battling lung cancer and it is progressively getting worse.
Phillip returns to Alabama with a plan of action to cure his mother’s cancer, and is always at her side. In the free moments he has, Phillip reconnects with an old friend, Joe (Peter Stebbings). Their attraction is instantaneous and they quickly develop a strong bond. As Phillip finds out who he is with Joe, his mother does the same while battling her cancer. During a two-year period, they each individually grow, and so does their relationship as they try obscure healing remedies and dabble with hash brownies.
Authenticity Lost in Narrative
In translating this monumental time in Cooper’s life to the screen, the significance seemed to disappear from the story. It felt like I had seen this story a thousand times before in a number of different movies. It is not Cooper’s fault that this happened; at this point in time in film, it is difficult to make an entirely original film. However, there are ways to make a movie its own, by utilizing characters, creating a unique tone, or pushing an honest message. All these opportunities for Cooper to put into the film, but instead he filled it with clichés.
Phillip returns home to the south after spending most of his career in Los Angeles. He brings books about how cancer is caused by holding in secrets, and suggest his mom eat seaweed and tofu. All of these are classic LA tropes, and in the film his sister and father tease him for it. At the end of the film Phillip, who had been trying to run up a hill backward for the duration of the film, finally does, and he falls to the ground in glee. It’s a scene that screams, “catharsis!”, as if it wasn’t apparent that was the point of the film from its log-line.
In stories that are based off real experiences, what matters most is the characters. This is true in Counting for Thunder and fortunately, the acting is the strength of the film. Each actor knew who they were, and their performances were effortless. However, rather than letting the characters flourish, they were restricted by their dialogue and interactions.
There is a consistent pattern throughout the film of two characters having an intimate conversation, where they share a deep thought paired with an anecdote. There are a handful of times where these moments do work, and they have a power to them. The strongest scene of the film is when Joe pushes Phillip away because he feels like Phillip is just using him as a confidant and not a companion. There is a tension in that scene that revealed something about the characters because it relied on the actor’s vulnerability instead of pushing plot. But not the same could be said for a majority of other similar scenes, where these moments were obviously contrived and tools for storytelling.
It is apparent that the movie wanted to be a comedy with some dramatic moments, but there was a lot of potential lost because of this. This movie aligned with Chris Kelly’s Other People, which has almost the exact same premise and is also based on Kelly’s life. However, in Other People comedy was used to lighten the tone while also to show the dynamic of the family, but drama is what empowered the story. Cancer, family, and self-discovery are heavy topics that need to invest in the reality of what they are in order to tell a story that is relatable. Counting for Thunder instead seemed to run away from drama, deflecting it with comedy.
Comedy can exist, but it has to have the right timing and also the right match with the story. The comedy of the film matches Phillip as a character and the overall wacky tone, especially since the film also has narration by Phillip’s character, and those narrations contain repeated or very similar jokes. But with Cooper as the star, writer, and director of the film it feels clear that these jokes are by Cooper for Cooper rather than it being a comedy that everyone can enjoy.
Cooper’s inexperience in filmmaking led him to step into a number of cliché traps, however, it is a jumping off point and he has the potential to improve. The film had its moments and is an enjoyable watch overall.
What did you think of Counting for Thunder?
Counting for Thunder will be released on DVD and VOD on May 2, 2017.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.