One: Tony Barbieri’s Striking Directorial Debut at Sundance Fest

A highlight of the American Spectrum series–and possibly of the 1998 Sundance Film Festival–One, Tony Barbieri’s striking directorial debut, offers a riveting psychological exploration of the dissoving friendship between two young men, as their lives unexpectedly take opposite paths and different meanings.

Small scale and downbeat tone, which perfectly fit the film’s thematic concerns, will no doubt restrict theatrical opportunities, but One should easily travel the festival road and serve as a calling card for a talented director, whose first outing shows tremendous awareness of the proper relationship between substance and style.

The film’ establishing shot, with the camera observing the back of a young man, Nick (Kane Picoy) sitting at a bar watching baseball on TV, signals that story will deal with alienation and communication breakdown. Indeed, in the following scene, Nick picks up his buddie Charlie (Jason Cairns) outside a state penitentiary and drives him to his house. The prolonged silence between the two men, who physically could pass as brothers, indicates that they have known each other for years, but it also suggests that a long time has passed since they last saw each other.

Gradually, it’s disclosed that Charlie has been in prison on a manslaughter charge–assisting his old grandfather at taking his life–and that now, having paid for his crime, his goal is to overcome his stigmatized past and re-enter into society as a legit citizen. As partial fulfillment of his parole, Charlie takes a community service job, delivering medical supplies to disabled children. His parole officer (Muhammed Hassan) informs him that he is not allowed to approachany of the children. Nonetheless, in one of the film’s most poignant moments, Charlie helps a child who had fallen off his wheel chair and is caught and reproached for his act.

Just as Charlie maintains a sense of purpose and is committed to a quick rehabilitation, Nick begins an inevitable spiral downward. A gifted athlete, Nick has destroyed a once-promising career as a baseball player whe he hit his manager. Deeply bruised, but maintaining on the surface an aura of sheer indifferent, Nick works in garbage collection and lives in a ground floor apartment in a building owned by his father (Paul Herman), a man who can’t forgive his son for being a failure.

At first, the two men not only work, but also share their spare time together. However, on his parole job, Charlie meets and is instantly smitten with Sara (Autumn Macintosh), his attractive supervisor. As is often the case of such intense male camaraderie, as soon as Sara enters into the picture, the duo begin to drift apart. Charlie’s commitment to his college studies and to his relationship with Sara devastates Nick, accentuating his seclusion and the lack of women–or any other meaningful bonds–in his life.

Many American movies have portrayed the beginnings of friendships or love affairs, but few have shown with such honesty and realism the ruinous effects of deteriorating relationships. It’s in this respect that One, a film whose title can mean any number of things, excels, candidly showing the asymmetric nature and different needs that define most human interactions. As an authentic study of rehabilitation, One surpasses such honorable cinematic efforts as Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, which also concerned the initial reformation and then eventual downward slide of an ex-prisoner (played by Dustin Hoffman).

Pessimistic ending, in which Charlie gets killed by former prison mates, is emotionally powerful, not the least of which because of the way it’s filmed. Lenser Matthew Irving observes the scene, and Nick’s reaction to it, from a long, sustained shot, never allowing the audience to get too close to the action. In general, director Barbieri reveals taste and discretion in finding the right style to his story, opting for a precise, often poetic yet also detached camera. Helmer never pretends to totally understand his characters, granting Cairns (who’s also credited as co-scripter) and Picoy, his two able thesps, remarkable freedom in interpreting their demanding roles.

Subtle in nuance, modest to a fault, and running against the grain of most indies in theme and style, One is one hell of a good movie.