Grade: 79 (B+)
Some films fall into obscurity because they can’t find an audience. Some are met with bad reviews. And others just have shit luck in general. 2001’s Don’s Plum falls squarely in the last category. The film was shot on-and-off in 1995 and 1996 by director R.D. Robb as a student film project. When two of the film’s stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, hit the big-time, Robb pieced the sessions together as a feature film and premiered it at the Berlin Film Festival, but the film was denied release in the U.S. and Canada after DiCaprio and Maguire blocked the film with a lawsuit. The guesses as to why they did it range from petulant (Tobey Maguire not wanting the raunchy, misanthropic comedy to spoil his image as Spider-Man) to legitimate (Robb going back on his original intention in order to cash in on the actors’ popularity). Whatever the case, it’s unfortunate that a film as striking as Don’s Plum could be lost.
The film has a rather loose structure: four friends gather for their Saturday tradition at Don’s Plum, a restaurant at which they drink coffee, eat fries, and talk about their lives. They consist of: spaced-out Ian (Maguire), neurotic aspiring actor Jeremy (Kevin Connolly), sullen Brad (Scott Bloom), and acidic smack-talker Derek (DiCaprio). Each of them are tasked each week to bring a new girl: Ian brings the sweet waitress Juliet (Meadow Sisto), Jeremy the sensitive hitchhiker Amy, and Brad his new hookup Sara (Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis), a secret drug addict They are soon joined by Sara’s friend Constance (Heather McComb), who’s in love with Sara. The group spends the night harassing the staff and other customers, talking about masturbation and sex, have strange encounters, and reveal some well-guarded truths.
The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, from Connolly’s work as an actor who gets the chance of a lifetime after he runs into a producer to Lewis (who provided songs with fellow band member Blake Soper) as a character who’s by different turns wounded, provocative, and warm. Maguire impresses as the one member of the group ready to jump to the defense of a friend, be it Brad after Derek makes fun of him for being bisexual or Derek after he confesses something painful. DiCaprio is particularly strong as a spoiled little bastard that rivals his self-parodic work in Woody Allen’s otherwise wretched Celebrity. What gives his work here an edge as one of his best early performances is his ability to make Derek completely unlikable throughout most of the film and vulnerable by the end. When he and Lewis nearly have a tryst in the back room of the restaurant (set wonderfully to Phantom Planet’s “Do the Panic”), the development is equal parts startling and delightful.
Don’s Plum resembles a number of independent films of its era, most notably Clerks and Kids with its lo-fi production values, its willingness to depict teens as self-absorbed, sex-addled creeps, and its episodic, talky nature. The film is far more assured than either of those films, however: it has neither the sensationalistic, leery sensibility of Larry Clark’s film nor the visual indifference of Kevin Smith’s film. Don’s Plum looks fantastic, bringing out striking black-and-white contrast that compliments the caffeine-addled conversations of the group. He also manages to mine remarkably truthful material from his cast’s improv work and sketch a vivid portrait of unlikable people who are nonetheless complicated and fascinating. Robb makes a few missteps, most notably in some unnecessary, often heavy-handed monologues the characters give to themselves in the bathroom mirror, but the guy has talent. It’s a shame that he’ll likely never direct again.
This film is not available on DVD or any form of video in the U.S.. It’s the rare case where I’d advise people to try to bootleg it, find it on a streaming site, or get ahold of it by other means. Let’s rescue this thing.