It’s rare that a movie comes along that completely upends your expectations. Relaxer is one of those films. The latest from director Joel Potrykus, Relaxer held its Washington premiere at the inaugural North Bend Film Festival on August 26th.
The film follows Abner, called Abbie, (Joshua Burge), a directionless couch potato living with his abusive older brother, Cam (David Dastmalchian), in a derelict apartment. It’s the summer before Y2K, and when he’s not busy prepping his survival compound, Cam is bullying his brother into completing outlandish challenges to prove he’s not a quitter. After failure upon failure, Abbie takes on the ultimate challenge — to complete the unbeatable final level of Pac-Man, all while not leaving the couch until he’s done.
Relaxer begins as a straightforward, gross-out black comedy with a nostalgic twist. The title sequence and credits evoke classic retro vibes, but the film’s vision of the late 90s is without rose-tinted glasses. With its grubby setting and population of paranoid, empty souls, the 1999 of Relaxer is not something audiences long to return to. Its bleak take on the era is refreshing among the current nostalgia trend. The film has superb, carefully planned art direction and brilliant sound design that together seem initially incidental until the film progresses.
Relaxer never leaves the tiny apartment living room where Abbie sits, bringing the audience into his feelings of squalor and isolation. All the while a rotating cast of characters visit Abbie, revealing clues about his past. By the end of the film, all the seemingly inconsequential asides of conversation and plot come together in an unexpected and essential way.
The magic of Relaxer is how it slowly, subtly slips into the surreal. It eases viewers into its strange but ultimately realistic story, then eventually pulls the rug out from under them. I can’t reveal much more without spoiling the clever and totally unexpected place Relaxer ends up. It’s a genre shift that caught me totally off guard in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. Part of the brilliance of the film is how it pulls the audience so fully into Abbie’s struggle. It’s so effective that we start to buy into his fantasies and lose our sense of reality just as he does.
All the while the clever script, fast firing dialogue, and excellent performances keep us laughing one minute and emotionally invested the next. Joshua Burge completely sells the story and Andre Hyland in particular steals the show as Abbie’s slacker friend.
Relaxer is a film that refuses category but still fits well within a horror/genre sensibility. It’s disturbing, hilarious, nauseating, suspenseful, and bewildering. In short, it’s a can’t miss work of genre-bending cinema.