TIFF Movie Review: Max Winkler's Ceremony

Yesterday, I attended the premiere of Max Winkler's feature directorial debut Ceremony at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The 27-year old USC film school graduate and son of television actor Henry Winkler (Fonzie on Happy Days) is probably best known as the director of the popular Clark and Michael web series which starred Michael Cera and Clark Duke. In 2005, he co-wrote and co-directed a short film titled The King of Central Park, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, Malibu International Film Festival and Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The short is wonderfully awkward, sometimes Wes Anderson-like, especially in the music, use of slow motion and symmetrical framing.

You could definitely see he has a unique voice and sense of comedy, which led to a few writing assignments: He co-wrote The Adventurer's Handbook with Jonah Hill and Matt Spicer, which SNL Digital Shorts/Hot Rod helmer Akiva Schaffer is attached to direct at Universal. He also co-wrote a football script, a big screen adaptation of the short story Whispers in Bedlam for Jason Reitman.

He has been trying to get a feature film off the ground for the past few years. He sold a Charlie Kaufman-esque script to Fox Searchlight titled The Ornate Anatomy of Living Things, about a "bookstore clerk living in Manhattan discovers a museum run by a strange old man that exists solely for the purpose of studying his life." But for some reason or another, the project never went into production. He has instead decided to take the low budget approach and independently produced his debut feature.

Ceremony stars the very underrated Michael Angarano (Almost Famous, Snow Angels) as an aspiring children's book author named Sam Davis, who convinces his former best friend Marshall (played by the also underrated Reece Thompson of Rocket Science and Assassination of a High School President) to spend a weekend with him to re-establish their friendship. But Sam has secret ulterior motives — he plans to infiltrate and break-up a wedding ceremony being held at a big Gatsby-esque-sized beach house in Long Island because he is in love with the bride, an older woman named Zoe (played by Uma Thurman).

In his introduction, Winkler admitted that Ceremony is a "personal story" he's lived with "for a long time. The main character's name is essentially MAX spelt backwards. Winkler has also described the story as a "coming-of-age-story in reverse" — "the idea of a boy who thinks he's a man and in the end, actually realizes that he's just a boy." I think we've all gone through that stage in our teenage years/early adulthood where we believe we know everything. That is of course the moment right before we realize that the world is a much bigger place and things are much more complicated than we could have ever imagined.

The dialogue is very quick and snappy, which might be jarring for some viewers in the opening scenes. But once you get use to the rhythm, only then do you realize how funny it actually is. Winkler's short film might have felt like an tribute to the films of Wes Anderson. A lot of film school students grapple the line of emulating the filmmakers they admire and trying to explore and find their own voice and style. Ceremony feels like Max has further developed his style, and has come into his own with a less-stylized more naturalistic approach — imagine something like the style/tone of a Noah Baumbach film and the dialogue/awkwardness of a Wes Anderson film.

Ceremony feels like the first movie from a filmmaker we need to watch — a fantastic feature debut. I can't wait to see what he does next.

His screenplay is filled with complex, interesting and engrossing characters, and his film has fantastic performances across the board. Both Angarano and Thompson are in great form. Jake Johnson (who some of you might remember as playing a fictional version of director Nic Jasenovic in the quasi-faux documentary Paper Heart) plays Zoe's brother Teddy, and completely steals every scene he appears in. I have a feeling that we're going to see a lot more of Johnson in the near future. However, Zoe's fiancé Whit (played by Lee Pace) is played a bit over the top for my tastes.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10