The quirky dramedy is a film festival staple at this point, so what exists to set married directing duo Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater’s Downtown Owl apart from the crowd? For one, this quick-speaking, stylish film has a tone akin to Diablo Cody meets Wes Anderson, with just a dash of Twin Peaks. Scripting duties also come courtesy of Linklater, driving the singularity of his vision forward in clear and concise ways. An ensemble cast led by Rabe devour their material, and constant fourth-wall-breaking insights will keep viewers hooked to the screen. Set in the winter of late 1983, Downtown Owl stitches together small town vibes, drunken escapades, a mysterious Elvis Costello-obsessed stranger, high school politics, and sleazy coaches into an icy cacophony of darkly comedic fun.
Forgive Downtowl Owl its one biggest transgression in opening where we end, but then again, it has to bookend the film with its trademark blizzard. Julia (Rabe) has been trapped in her car under mounds of snow. “4-ish” months earlier, Julia arrives in the town of Owl, population “800 and who cares.” She receives quite the welcome: nearly everyone she comes across does a full stop to introduce themselves to the camera, alongside a random tidbit that may or may not have any relevance whatsoever. Julia will be the new teacher of seventh and eighth grade geography at the local high school. Her first day is mostly spent soaking it all in.
The assortment of characters Julia meets include many students—sweet quiet quarterback Mitch (August Blanco Rosenstein) and his crush, Tina (Arden Michalec), bumbling anxious-for-action teen Eli Zebra (Jack Dylan Grazer), and whip-smart but frequently unintelligible Rebecca (Arianna Jaffier). The faculty is equally important to Julia’s experiences in Owl. Her window into Owl mostly comes courtesy of trashy-yet-sassy fellow teacher Naomi (Vanessa Hudgens); their unlikely friendship means nightly drinking at local bar Hugo’s, and oodles of girl talk. The school’s football coach (Finn Wittrock) has not-so-secretly knocked up student Tina, and also is head of the English department. Like any school, football is “a big deal here,” but can it be enough to overlook the coach’s obvious infidelities?
At first, it seems like Julia may be the only normal person in Owl. She calls on students in class to answer questions—Eli says George Orwell wrote 1984 because he was a “gay alcoholic,” whilst one kid she calls on for an answer simply grunts. Downtown Owl may initially posit Julia as the straight woman to the town’s insanity, but this does not last for long. As she spirals down a hole of drunkenness, she latches onto a sexy mystery man in a cowboy hat named Vance (Henry Golding), and a passionate football-obsessed older gentleman named Horace (Ed Harris). As the film inches closer and closer to its blizzard bookend, its various caricatures are fleshed out into fully-realized characters. Looking for deeper messaging may be a moot point. However, the movie leaves us with positive energy, insisting that the place we live does not necessarily define us.
While neither Rabe nor Linklater have ever directed film before, Downtown Owl oozes style in every zippy line of dialogue and structured flourish. Chuck Klosterman’s novel on which the film is based must have served as an excellent template overflowing in its muchness. Stepping into the zany world of this film means giving oneself over to full immersion—where else can teacher and student openly engage in sexual situations in the teacher’s lounge, or Hudgens hilariously deliver dialogue like “how many abortions have you had?” Toss in a lovely American Horror Story reunion (both Wittrock and Rabe starred as series leads), and this will be a must-see for many. Backed by a whistle-score and some fascinating camera work, Downtown Owl is a crowd-pleasing festival treat that leaves a lasting impression.
Downtown Owl screened at 2023’s Tribeca Film Festival, and will likely release later this year from Sony and Stage6 Films.