It's amazing how well actors respond to good material, and, equally, how troublesome material can leave them stranded. No indie movie this year has shown both instances so clearly as The Elephant King, a drama about two brothers' adventures in the sex, drugs, and rock-'n'-roll-cover-band party scene of Thailand.
The film, written and directed by Seth Grossman, begins strongly enough, cutting between prodigal son Jake (Jonno Roberts) and his younger brother, Oliver (Tate Ellington), who are set against each other by a meddlesome, worrywart mom (Ellen Burstyn, unfortunately stuck in a limited role). Jake, we learn through a sequence of clever visual storytelling, has been partying with the ladies of the night in Thailand for a while on the dime of his old university, which is suing him back in the States for fraudulent grant applications. Ostensibly wanting to reconnect with his younger brother but unable to return home, Jake buys a plane ticket for Oliver, who has been suffering from a low-income dishwashing job and a mom who brings home co-workers to hook him up with.
For a while, Roberts leads an interesting cast and story as a vigorously depicted wastrel, a seemingly typical American youth operating on purely distilled selfishness. He's Jim Morrison without a hit band, but at least in a country where it doesn't cost much to party as if he did. Ellington seems to understand he already shines beside the Roman candle Roberts makes with his character and underplays accordingly as the sensitive sibling. Initially eager to take a few shots of his elder bro's life, Oliver recoils from Jake's baser impulses.
When Oliver gets off the plane in Thailand, Jake shows his detachment from reality by whisking him off to a brothel, where women in gowns wait behind plate glass to be chosen. Oliver scans their sagging, makeup-caked faces and flinches. "I feel sorry for them," he says. "It takes some getting used to," Jake admits — absent-mindedly noting the gulf of feeling that separates them.
The Elephant King proceeds this way through a long, surreal, and gloriously depicted night of debauchery, ending in an early-morning brunch when Jake impetuously buys the beast of the title. Grossman has a talent for finding the humor, beauty, and pathos in this strange land, often in the same shot. But at this point he begins to lose the tight grip he had on his story, suggesting he is ultimately as unsure of where these two rascals are going as they are. Trying to compensate, he alternates Jake, Oliver, and their Thai girlfriend Lek (Florence Faivre) in the spotlight, creating emotional fireworks to cover up a slow narrative fizzle. Roberts and Ellington hang tough for a while, but as unnecessary and overacted arguments build up, we realize no one knows what they're doing there — and that we never will. Grossman has instructed Ellington to scream directly into the camera in a climactic moment. You may feel like doing the same.
Written and directed by: Seth Grossman
Starring: Jonno Roberts, Tate Ellington, Florence Faivre, Ellen Burstyn