Slaves to the Underground

1997, R, 94 min. Directed by Kristine Peterson. Starring Molly Gross, Marisa Ryan, Jason Bortz, Natacha Laferriere, Bob Neuwirth.

REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Dec. 12, 1997

Putting reverse English on a timeless platitude, young director Kristine Peterson shows us some of the endless ways in which the political is personal. The characters in her achingly earnest romantic comedy are mostly foot soldiers in Seattle's musico-political bohemia, cranking out power chords and photocopied 'zines aimed at raising the consciousness of a nation spiritually starved by bland pop culture and the digital Soma of Chairman Bill Gates. The principals are Shelly (Gross) and Suzy (Ryan), the leaders of an all-female punk band called the No Exits, and Jimmy (Bortz), a political newsletter publisher whose dwindling finances raise the awful specter of 9-5 employment. Suzy and Shelly are lovers, but things are getting a bit tense of late. Shelly's wavering on the brink of reconciliation with former boyfriend Jimmy and is sparring with Suzy over the ideological content of their music. (Gung ho Suzy views her bludgeoning songs solely as delivery vehicles for her doctrinal broadsides; Shelly figures a wee bit of Ani DiFranco-ish folkie leavening couldn't hurt anything.) What's interesting about this movie is its snapshot documentation of how absolutist, dogma-driven movements ultimately diffuse into the confusingly protean reality of human life. Nearly everybody here is involved in some movement or other, unselfconsciously speaking of revolutions and “the cause” and taking turns at solo, camera-facing tirades on subjects ranging from Dustin Hoffman's “stalker” behavior in The Graduate to Ted Koppel's hair. But, to adapt a bumper-sticker sentiment of yesteryear, a righteous slogan is as useful to a real woman or man as a bicycle is to a fish. There's no purity to be found in sexual orientation, ideology, or emotion. Shelly's lack of resolution in these areas causes no end of pain for Suzy (played with both vulnerability and sawtoothed ferocity by Ryan) or the well-meaning, exquisitely PC Jimmy. Realizing that she can't be what both of her lovers need, she starts assembling the rudiments of a unique, self-reinforcing identity. Respect is due to Peterson for permitting this level of frankness in a movie with such a clear political agenda. But Slaves to the Underground is so lackluster in such basic areas as editing, shot composition, acting (only Ryan and Bortz appear to have a future beyond the low-budget indie arena), and dialogue (for the most part, classic illustrations of speech that sound written rather than overheard) that the potential impact is diluted by half. Finally, if a film is going to criticize Cindy Crawford for representing a false ideal of beauty, wouldn't those words ring truer if so many of its female characters didn't look like artfully disheveled beer commercial babes? Chalk this up as one of those movies that you toast for good intentions in the reception hall of honorable also-rans.

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