Ever reach a point in life where you felt that you’d bent over backwards once too often to accommodate people who never feel it important to reciprocate, given up what you wanted once too often so that somebody else could get what they wanted? That is the state in which we find Doug, the 30ish protagonist of Walter Strafford’s feature film debut Kilimanjaro, which was an Official Selection at this year’s SXSW and screened at last weekend’s Woodstock Film Festival.
Portrayed with great delicacy and restraint by Brian Geraghty (True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Jarhead) – who bears a striking resemblance, especially around the eyes, to a young Derek Jacobi – Doug leads a seemingly okay if unexciting life. He shares a decent apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone with a bright and attractive young woman named Clare (Alexia Rasmussen); they’ve been together a long time and Doug’s parents approve of what they presume is an impending marriage. He has a secure job as a book editor, with a boss (Jim Gaffigan) who regards him as his right-hand man. He’s healthy and has sustained a long friendship with a former college buddy (Chris Marquette).
So on a global scale, it looks like Doug has nothing much to complain about. But he drags himself limply through his days, uninspired by the way his life is going. Clare feels unappreciated; whatever spark existed in the early days of their relationship has clearly fizzled. Bill, his jerk of a boss, takes advantage of Doug’s diligence and talent and demands that he work too much overtime. And Mitch, his intermittently supportive old friend, is a spoiled, abrasive boy/man who alienates women and is envious of bland Doug’s relative success with the opposite sex.
When Doug and Clare decide to break up their glum living arrangement, there’s a moment when hope for a chance to “follow his bliss” glimmers on the horizon. Doug visits his grandfather (John Cullum), who’s recuperating from a stroke, and is inspired by the old man’s reminiscences of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mexico that he took in his youth. Acting spontaneously and selfishly for once in his life, Doug decides that what he really wants is to go on a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro before he gets locked into a life-script from which there is no returning. He manages to talk the skeptical Mitch into going with him, commits financially to the trip and starts trying to get in shape for the climb.
This is where Kilimanjaro begins to deviate from the standard sparkly rom/com tale of a doormat breaking out of his or her shell to pursue a dream deferred. First Doug sprains his ankle badly while running. Then Bill refuses to let him book vacation time during the month of his planned trek. Mitch bails out of an offer to front payment for Doug’s share of the trip and deliberately sabotages a budding relationship between Doug and a new romantic interest, Yvonne (Abigail Spencer). Doug’s father loudly disapproves of the breakup and refuses to let his son borrow from investments in his name. And Clare dithers about making the breakup permanent, occasionally turning up at most inconvenient moments. Things just go downhill from there – which is not the best way to be approaching the highest mountain in Africa.
Kilimanjaro is a low-budget little feature by a novice director, and yet everything about it is finely crafted and nearly pitch-perfect. The setup and the character types are so familiar that the bleak downward arc of Strafford’s narrative seems like a bracingly audacious departure from formula. Rom/com fans may not like it because it punctures all our expectations for a feel-good ending, and folks who crave action will likely be bored. It’s a small-scale movie about ordinary people whose lives often take disappointingly realistic turns.
But life is like that. Sometimes you have to play the bad hand that’s dealt you in the way that best cuts your losses. And knowing how to accept disappointment and make something new out of it is a skill that ought not be undervalued. Our hearts ache for Doug at the end, and if the compensations that he still has to look forward to are smaller than Mount Kilimanjaro, we can hope that they will still prove rewarding in their own way.