Acting Within Acting

By  · Published on August 2nd, 2016

How three current releases capture their key characters with multi-layered performances.

The echoes of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival might have exclusively revolved around the critical reception and monstrous sale figures of titles like The Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea. But in intimate circles on the ground back in January, two key scenes from two very well liked films were inspiring equally impassioned and enthusiastic conversations, despite the smaller-sized buzz they were generating elsewhere. One of these scenes – in which an acting student faces off against his teacher in a heated acting exercise of repetition and reaction – belongs to renowned New York auteur Ira Sachs’ Little Men; the third film in the writer/director’s unofficial New York trilogy that follows Keep The Lights On and Love is Strange. The other was the most climactic scene of Indignation; a Philip Roth adaptation written and directed by the former Focus Features CEO James Schamus in his directorial debut. In this scene, we watch the idealist Jewish college freshman and future law-school hopeful Marcus (Logan Lerman) intellectually challenge and passionately fight off his forthright Dean’s (Tracy Letts) unusual interrogation about his heritage, religious beliefs (or non-beliefs, in the case of the self-proclaimed atheist Marcus) and character. In Sundance, both scenes were met with rapturous applause mid-screening, arousing something powerful within the audience.

Indignation, the kind of adult period film they don’t seem to be making often anymore, is currently out in theaters. And the theatrical release of Little Men is just days away. Having found the opportunity to revisit both films just a short while ago, I dotingly recalled what made them, especially the commanding qualities of the said scenes, so special. But I was also struck by a loosely shared element in both that helped expose the dispositions and key traits of the respective films’ main personas. I could perhaps define this element best with the phrase “acting within acting,” which also exists bountifully in various scenes of another current release: writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, which follows the members of a New York City improv group as they perform collectively, but flourish separately and at times, in direct competition to one another.

Little Men’s aforementioned remarkable scene with the acting exercise – which you can and should watch here – is a bit of a break from the story that follows two early teens’ burgeoning friendship, threatened by their parents’ real estate-related battles and hurdles. At first glance, it seems like a bit of a diversion and perhaps a cinematic aria, plugged in to the film to get an enthusiastic rise from the audience. But I’d argue this scene actually crystallizes how much more gifted a communicator Tony is (Michael Barbieri, a star in the making) than the adults that surround him. In a way, we learn more about the young Tony through this scene than we ever did before, even after getting a clear sense of the casual confidence and natural charisma he possesses through various scenes that come before it. Here, Michael Barbieri is not only playing Tony, but is also playing Tony play an actor in front a crowd, with his self-assurance and coolness fully fired up. Following this scene, we start seeing Tony somewhat differently. We feel he’s destined for greatness. And we also experience the difference between him, and his soft-spoken friend Jake (Theo Taplitz) profoundly. In the end, this seeming interruption turns out to be a crucial character study that reveals Tony and his place in the world of adults through two layers of acting: on screen and within the scene.

In Don’t Think Twice, we follow the aforementioned improv group both on and off stage. But the “on stage” scenes where they act and improvise spell out and punctuate the group’s internal dynamics and clashes in a far more perspicuous manner. While the ensemble of actors plays the on-stage improv group that conjures up on-the-fly comedic sketches (based on impromptu cues from random audience members each night), the inner workings of the group and the personalities of the individuals reveal themselves plainly. For starters, we get to learn that the well-meaning, but ego and success driven Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) doesn’t mesh well with the kind of group-think the improv collective requires. When he reaches for his best impersonation (of Barack Obama) in the middle of a routine that doesn’t really call for it, we realize he will be a goner soon, being less concerned to have his co-actors’ back (even though they step out onto the stage every night, with the joint promise: “I got your back”) and more focused on showcasing his craft. Jack isn’t really painted as a villain in this film. But when the camera captures Keegan-Michael Key play the actor Jack who acts within a group in front of an audience, we become fully aware of his ambition and personal priorities.

Indignation doesn’t perhaps fit in the “acting within acting” thesis at first glance, but the film’s overall theatricality (which outdoes its cinematic qualities at times) is also conspicuous. The actors often project their voices strongly, and vigorously articulate their words as if they are on an invisible stage. This style becomes most apparent in Dean Caudwell’s office, during the abovementioned confrontation between him and his student. In this scene, the characters are obviously conversing among themselves and not playing out a scene in front of an on-screen audience, but they act as though they are being watched and make us feel it too. The law-school hopeful Marcus perceptibly treats the Dean’s office as a courtroom as he presents him his case against religion and stands by his decision to move to another dormitory that Caudwell investigates with rigor. And Caudwell assumes the same mindset and plays along, while his office becomes more of a courtroom with concealed spectators in the eyes of the audience. The scene, which Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri dives deeply into here, is simply riveting and electrifying. And it conceptually opens up Marcus, the film’s key character, as Logan Lerman plays him as a student briefly playing a lawyer.

When it comes to “acting within acting,” this summer’s about to offer even more treasures. Just wait until Robert Greene’s exceptional Kate Plays Christine comes your way on August 24. Watching Kate Lyn Sheil playing herself study and eventually play Christine Chubbuck – the Florida news anchor that committed suicide on air in 1974 – is wildly mystifying stuff.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.