(Written by Allison Brown)
In the final few minutes of SXSW selection Linoleum, I was in tears, speechless, and yearning desperately to find another critic who also watched so I could talk about it. I am honestly in awe of the film’s setup, intelligent script, adept foreshadowing, and layered performances, particularly from Jim Gaffigan who impressively plays two roles. Linoleum hits all the notes of my favorite types of films, by combining elements of The Notebook, Back to the Future, Netflix’s Dark, The Father, and alluding to Bill Nye, the Science Guy’s 90s television reign. Throw in a dysfunctional, depressed, and broken family with a hint of the LGBT genre and you have Linoleum. I did not expect director and screenwriter Colin West’s narrative to dive as deep into the realm of science fiction as it did, but I am immensely impressed. The description on the festival website is left intentionally vague, and that is important for any viewer going into this creative masterwork. Over twenty movies into South by Southwest this year, Linoleum is tied (with Sissy) for my favorite film of the festival.
Linoleum follows middle-aged Cameron (Jim Gaffigan) and Erin Edwin (Rhea Seehorn), along with their two children, a bisexual, high-school aged daughter, Nora (Katelyn Nacon), and a significantly younger son (played by six different people!). They live in Fairview Heights in the 90s, complete with VHS players, GameBoys, and retro cameras. Cameron is the star of a quirky children’s science television program called Above and Beyond, reminiscent of Bill Nye, the Science Guy. For two years, Cameron has been promised the coveted Saturday morning spot, but is once again let down by his boss (Michael Ian Black) and forced to remain at a poorly targeted midnight hour. Despite this, his family is generally supportive of his show and spend quality time watching it with him and even on their own. His wife is equally unsatisfied in her job at the Air and Space Museum, yet she has no idea what she truly wants to do with her life. When asked what she hoped to do growing up, Erin states she would just tell people that she wanted to be “fantastic.” Nearing fifty, the two struggle with feelings of inadequacy and inch closer to signing divorce papers.
All hell breaks loose when a flipped over red convertible mysteriously drops from the sky as Cameron bikes home. Even stranger, the man crushed in the car appears to be “a younger better-looking version” of him! Unfortunately, his entire family fails to believe his story and begin to doubt his sanity. A chain of events sends Cameron on a strange path to reevaluate his life. At work, Cameron learns that PBS (alluding to the original television home of Bill Nye) has shown interest in Above and Beyond for their network. However, they wish to move forward with a new host, and Cameron is out of a job. The replacement host is none other than the man he encountered falling from the sky, an astronaut named Kent Armstrong (also played by Jim Gaffigan, and amusingly coined after real astronaut Neil Armstrong), who has no recollection of the events that transpired.
The story only gets weirder from here, folks! As we begin to follow Cameron’s daughter, we are transported to her classroom at Fairview Heights High School. Her teacher discussed the birthday paradox, which states that “statistically in a room with over 23 people, there is more than a fifty percent chance that two people will have the same birthday.” After the class learns her birthday falls on Halloween, handsome new student Marc (Gabriel Rush) walks through the door. His birthday is a match, also conveniently October 31st! They quickly become intimate friends, and watching their relationship develop becomes one of the highlights of Linoleum.
When the family returns home that day, something has gone very wrong! A rocket from outer space has crash landed in their backyard, and their house is now a site of evidence. Their home is now under government jurisdiction, which means not only are they prohibited from checking out the rocket, but they are also not allowed to return home. The Edwins must move in with Aunt Linda, who outwardly dislikes Cameron, and this is where the story truly begins.
Over the course of the film’s runtime, Cameron becomes more hopeful in pursuing his childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut, while Erin remains a stern, “rational,” and controlled foil. Perfectly timed science segments from Above and Beyond are peppered throughout and serve to amplify and add a comedic turn to serious scenes. The twists and turns are ample and will leave the viewer guessing the true nature hidden below the superficially dramatic narrative. I cannot stress enough how much attention to detail is present in the writing. In the film’s final reveals, Colin West proves his passion for this work. If only to better grasp the foreshadowing subtly noted in its conclusion, Linoleum deserves a rewatch to fully comprehend his artistry in the script.
Linoleum made its premiere crash landing at South by Southwest on Saturday, March 12.
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