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"Back at the Staircase" was the Milwaukee Film Festival's closing night pick for 2018.

"Back at the Staircase": Intrigue tries to rise above insufferable family ruckus

At the risk of making the next Mueller gathering even more uncomfortable than usual, family reunions suck. Half of the people in attendance don't want to be there, the other half wants to be there way too much and there's only so many times you can say, "Oh, you know, the same old same old," when asked what's new. And god help you if somebody brings up politics.

But it turns out there is something worse than attending your awkward family reunion, and that would be attending someone else's awkward family reunion – an experience all too well recreated by Drew Britton's anxious psychological melodrama "Back at the Staircase," a surprisingly confrontational, far-from-cuddly choice as the Milwaukee Film Festival's farewell pick for 2018. It's a tribute to Britton's approach that this insufferable clan stays intriguing – and, worse comes to worst, at a swift 77 minutes, unlike these dysfunctional relatives, it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Britton's film begins with matriarch Barbara bloodily tumbling down the family cabin's flimsy stairs, sending her to the hospital in questionable condition. And somehow that's the jovial high point of this family soiree as the leftover relatives try – and fail – to hold it together back at the homestead.

Phillip (Stephen Plunkett, "The Mend") is a confrontational weirdo whose nervously desperate monologues can't be contained by the family cabin, even leaking over to his poor unassuming neighbor (Heather LaVine). The flaky Margaret (Mickey O'Hagan, "Tangerine") is the inspiration for the celebration, though dodging arson charges isn't the greatest cause for celebration – as the family's neighbors angrily note while declining invitations to the sniper's gallery.

And while those two bicker, Trisha (Jennifer Lafleur, "Big Little Lies") tries to tidy the house back together, continuing to play quiet caretaker – or loud martyr – in their matriarch's absence.

Jody (Leonora Pitts) stands as the lone adult amongst these grown children, an outsider who's only there alongside her boyfriend Ian (Logan Lark, also the film's co-writer), a family cousin who seems normal at first, but soon degrades into a mumbling mess, paralyzed by guilt – partly over Barbara's future, partly over his past inaction and perhaps partly over his very bad haircut. (I don't mean that as a snide personal remark, but the fluff of hair is truly distracting.)

I'd call the ensuing chamber drama a dark comedy of manners, but nobody seems to have any – the only thing any of them has in common other than some strands of DNA and the inability to realize that they can leave anytime they damn well please. Barbara's blood isn't even cleaned off the stairs before the uncomfortable, on-edge sparing and gossiping begins. Some of Britton and Lark's scathing dialogue truly draw blood, like Phillip's rant to Trisha about self-flagellation or a verbal Mexican standoff at the staircase where even the outsider moderator Jody bares fangs.

Other parts hit a little overwrought, forcing conflict and drama instead of letting it naturally develop in this log cabin pressure cooker – less a satisfyingly building slow boil of stress and tension, and more like the burner sporadically and excessively flips between off and full-blast.

Too often, it's the latter, with the cast ready to come to rude blows a little too quickly. By the time the chaos escalates to an unintelligible shouting match scored to blaring music, "Back at the Staircase" hasn't built to this mania as much as it's just hitting a similar overheated note from the first act, just louder.

As the conflicts increase in volume, it's the quiet moments and characters that instead leave the biggest mark. Plunkett's twitchy work as the not-that-silently simmering Phillip is the film's biggest performance, but it's Lafluer as the "modest" martyr of the clan who's most actually affecting. Near the end of the film, as the rest of the family descends into record-smashing, insult-screaming anarchy, Lafluer has a moment where she's just wordlessly sitting on a bed, and you can see her, tired, thinking and processing the life that's passed her by, and wonder if it was at all worth it. In a movie of loud, aggressive drama, this silent moment speaks loudest of all.

There's another voice that rises above the chaos: Britton. Some of his ideas don't quite work with this particular script – the lack of exposition, for instance, which is a noble attempt at naturalism but also makes it even harder for the audience to connect with and understand the excessively maniacal, melodramatic characters – but they do intrigue, and he sets a fascinating tone for the feature from the very beginning with the tumble-tracked title card.

You don't see the inciting incident, but the crashing sounds and Brian Packham's unsettling score paint an impressively eerie and brutal scene over the black screen, setting a haunting tone that lingers of the rest of "Back at the Staircase." By the end, the claustrophobic horror vibe gets tense enough that you're not convinced the movie won't end with somebody getting murdered. (Fittingly, Britton's next movie is a horror flick – yes, even scarier than blood-boiling family.)

In the end, even though Britton smartly lays the audience's sympathies, and the film's final statement, with the viewer surrogate outsiders, "Back at the Staircase" is a lot of time spent with tone-deaf people too eager to be ugly and awful – and nowhere near eager enough to, I don't know, leave this cruelty convention. (Seriously, it's like a horror movie where everyone's phones are fully charged but nobody bothers to call 911.) This collapsing clan can go away – but Britton can stay. It's the kind of movie that makes you interested to see the director's next movie. That'll be the reunion to attend.

As for this one? RSVP maybe – the gentleman's no.

"Back at the Staircase": **1/2 out of ****


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