Whether from personal experience or empathic listening, Annie Baker knows her way around the grinding routines of a dead-end job. Never one to shy away from awkward silences (her previous trilogy, recently published as The Vermont Plays, abounds in conversational dead ends), she pushes this audience-testing technique to the max in her latest, The Flick, with the result that a certain attrition routinely occurs during intermission.
It’s the defectors’ loss, ultimately. Those familiar with Baker’s work know that any momentary ennui or unease pays off, big time. The silences steep us in unexpressed, perhaps inexpressible emotions.
Moreover, in the milieu Baker is depicting here – three movie-theatre employees face obsolescence, when their jobs aren’t all that rewarding to begin with – boredom is essential to setting and maintaining the mood.
They’re spinning their wheels, these three: old hand Sam (Matthew Maher), who can claim a purely illusory droit de seniority; young newbie Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten), alternately tentative and trusting, shy and standoffish; and brash Rose (Louisa Krause), somewhat elevated in status because she’s in charge of the soon-to-be-supplanted projector. Movies are rapidly going all digital, a trend that Avery, a film purist and idiot savant (he’s a whiz at “six degrees”), considers outright immoral.
Just how elitist Avery is, on every level, and the psychological damage he’s lugging along, takes a good three hours to tease out. Rose presents one picture, with her in-your-face mane of Manic Panic-green hair and willful aggression (extending to the sexual); even so, when it comes to relationships, of all sorts, she’s equipped with surprising insight. Sam, the designated loser (at 35, he’s living in his parents’ attic), seems the most easy-to-read and expendable; he also proves the most grounded.
Designer David Zinn has provided a movie-theatre interior of appropriately depressing aspect, and director Sam Gold gives Baker’s longueurs all the space they need to gel. Yes, the pace is patience-tryingly slow, the revelations of character more accretive than standard-issue “dramatic.” But make no mistake, the stakes are huge. As these characters try to figure out who they are and where they’re going, we’re forced to do so as well.