Another Woodstock Film Festival (WFF) has come to a close, and as usual, one mere mortal can only skim the wavetops of all the roiling artistic activity. Just reading about some of the movies I didn’t see is enough to whet my appetite, and it’s sad to know that many of these labors of love will languish in obscurity. The Bachelors, The Ballad of Lefty Brown and Last Flag Flying seem like the surest commercial bets from this year’s crop, but I want to stoke the fires for a real charmer that doesn’t appear to have found a distributor yet, except for online streaming: WFF 2017’s Kickoff Event feature, Stuck.
That you might not get a chance to see this movie on the big screen seems downright silly. The premise, in which a cross-section of diverse and damaged New Yorkers bares its secrets during a couple of hours stuck in a stalled subway car together, is not earth-shatteringly original. It’s A Chorus Line set in an underground tunnel, more or less, and Stuck is packed with great songs. What with the current Hollywood trend for retro projects like La La Land, the genre-spanning mania over Hamilton and the astonishing drawing power of song-heavy Disney vehicles like Frozen, it would seem that the time is absolutely right for audiences to take this new work – based on a still-relatively-unknown stage play by Riley Thomas – to their hearts.
The second feature directed by Michael Berry (Frontera, 2014), Stuck also has considerable star-power going for it. The central character, Lloyd, an unexpectedly wise derelict whose home is a New York City subway car, is played by Giancarlo Esposito, who has spent close to a decade now winning admiration (and acting award nominations) among the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul fanbase as the hyperchill Chilean drug lord Gus Fring. Who knew that this guy can sing and dance so ferociously as he does in his big number here, “Crazy”? Once you’ve seen him, it’s tough to imagine better contemporary casting.
The other “big name” in the cast is Amy Madigan, who was a singer before she was an actress. She’s damned good at both, and will make you weep on cue with “Gone,” her suburban-church-lady character Sue’s song about grieving for her son (played in flashbacks by Tim Young, who wrote the music for Stuck). Younger audiences will be more familiar with Grammy-winning hip-hop/R & B singer Ashanti, who plays Eve, a woman from a tough neighborhood determined to avoid unwed motherhood and who co-wrote her own bravura solo, “Make It Better.”
The rest of the main cast consists of massively talented lesser-knowns: Gerard Canonico as Caleb, an aspiring comic-book artist (“Magnificent Maggie”); Arden Cho as Alicia, a dancer (“Look”); Omar Chaparro as Ramón, a construction worker with three jobs and three daughters (“Más que Bastante”). At first glance, they size one another up as clichés: Stalker, Ice Queen, Illegal Immigrant and so on. As time passes and they begin to get on one another’s nerves, all the main characters (except Lloyd) are saddled with some cringeworthy dialogue that could have been lifted straight from the polarized world of social-media posts. It’s only when they burst out in song that they (and we) begin to perceive the vulnerable people beneath one another’s defensive, pigeonholed exteriors. By the end, they’ve all bonded; and if you really did have to sit in a subway car with half a dozen other people for a couple of hours, the viewer could do far worse than this soulful, lively lot.
During the question-and-answer session that followed the WFF screening last week, Esposito said that he was initially drawn to Stuck because its narrative reflects his core personal philosophy of not judging people before you know them. And while there’s something quintessentially New Yorky about avoiding eye contact with unpredictable strangers in the subways, there’s also something universally pertinent about that message about each of us deserving opportunities to make our own case. The conflicts in Stuck might seem shorthand, the resolutions sometimes pat; but it’s a definite feel-good movie, largely on the basis of how splendidly the music delivers. In fact, the viewers at WFF were so uplifted that they gave it a loud, lengthy standing ovation and made sure that it won the Festival’s Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.
Say what you will about lowest-common-denominator popularity, sometimes the audience turns out to be right. See Stuck if you get a chance. And if you know any teens or 20-somethings whose Spotify playlists lean heavily toward showtunes, be sure to take them with you.