A Bag of Hammers had its world premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival on March 12, 2011, and Lost in Reviews was in attendance. The movie follows two young men (I would say they were in their 20′s), Alan (Jake Sandvig) and Ben (Jason Ritter), who have made a living out of scamming people and stealing from them. Both men have had something happen in their past that was traumatic, and this forged a strong relationship between them. They both make decent money considering how good they are at scamming and stealing. They live in the backyard guest house of a house they rent out for income. They live fairly unattached to the world around them; they do not have girlfriends and only have a couple of friends. One of those friends is Marty (Todd Louiso) they take the nice stolen cars to for a cut of the profits. The other would be Alan’s sister Melanie (Rebecca Hall) who works at a quirky little diner, but still relies on the occasional financial help from her brother.
The story gets complicated when the men rent out their house to a mother and son, Lynette (Carrie Preston) and Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury), who have fled Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Lynette does not have a job and is having a hard time making ends meet. She does try to get a job, but she is not qualified enough for an office job. The stress of the money situation and trying to raise her son on her own results in Lynette repeatedly yelling at Kelsey and taking her anger out on him. Kelsey starts at a new school and becomes the victim of bullies almost immediately. Kelsey is also left to fend for himself most of the time while at home. He seems to subsist on Monster energy drinks and Hungry Man microwave meals. Carrie is absent from the home a lot, but the audience does not ever get told why. One day, Melanie goes inside the house after Kelsey offers her a soda. She sees that the house is a mess with trash everywhere, and Carrie is nowhere to be found. Melanie ends up contacting the Department of Family and Child Services about the situation, even though Ben and Alan beg her not to.
Eventually, Kelsey is left without a mother. Alan and Ben decide to hide the situation from the police, fearing that Kelsey will be moved to a group home. Ben thinks that taking care of Kelsey is only temporary. On the other hand, Ben has formed in his mind to try to keep Kelsey and raise him. This disagreement causes a rift between them.
A Bag of Hammers is directed by Brian Crano and written by Crano and Jake Sandvig. While many may perceive this film to be all comedy, it is also a drama that deals with some serious issues. The audience may find itself laughing out loud in one moment and shedding a tear in the next. This is the evidence of a great script, one that can seamlessly meld the comedy and drama elements together seamlessly.
The actors are top-notch in their performances. Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig have great comedic timing. There are a few times where they banter back and forth and do it so well, I had to wonder if there was a bit of adlibbing. Both actors were equally as good with delivering the serious lines of their characters. Their characters change into different people by the end of the movie. They are no longer selfish and immature, but willing to grow up and give a boy who came into their lives a chance. They realize that things may not work out, but they take the risk. Rebecca Hall is great at playing Melanie. You have to admire an actress who is willing to dress up in a ridiculous waitress costume and make up her own little dance that she uses to greet new customers. Her character is a bit conflicted morally with what her brother does for a living. She wants him to stop stealing and get a normal job, but she will still accept money from him to make ends meet while she is still in college. Hall has been friends with the director, Brian Crano, for several years and this role was written for her. It was a small enough part that she was able to complete the shots for her character in five days.
Chandler Canterbury as Kelsey is excellent. He plays a character that is neglected and verbally and physically abused. While Alan and Ben like to keep to themselves, Kelsey seeks out their company and friendship and eventually breaks down their walls. Canterbury did have a decent amount of lines, but what really struck me was his ability to convey his emotions and feelings when he had no lines. I find it remarkable that kids so young can have an understanding of what their characters are going through. They more than likely have no experience in their own lives to relate to their characters. I am sure Canterbury will have a long acting career in front of him.
I really have no complaints about the film. Everything about the movie is well done. There is a montage towards the end of the movie that may confuse some audience members, but that was not an issue for me. The way the story ends leads me to want to ask more questions of how everything worked out, but I do not want to spoil the ending for anyone.
The title of A Bag of Hammers refers to a metaphor that Ben uses to explain to Kelsey what happens after something tragic happens to you. The film is not about tragedy or the many problems you encounter in life, but how you decide to live your life and change to become a better person. Ben and Alan were immature delinquents who took the easy road in life, no responsibility, no complications. Then a boy nudged his way into their lives and they changed and grew up. They became dads. A Bag of Hammers is truly a great independent film that deserves the wider audience and buzz that SXSW can generate for the film.
***Remember to stay through the beginning of the end credits.
I give A Bag of Hammers 4.5 “Monster energy drinks” out of 5.