Guest Artist is a small-scale production by Jeff Daniels’ Michigan-local production company Grand River Productions. Daniels wrote the stageplay and now screenplay for the story, based on an experience in his youth when a much-admired playwright came to visit his local production house and showed up with no work for them to perform.
Here, Daniels takes on the lead role as Joseph Harris, a Pulitzer winner without a credit to his name in 20 years and a real problem with alcohol. Thomas Macias plays Kenneth Waters, the local aspiring playwright sent to pick Harris up from the train station early one winter morning. When Harris refuses to leave the station, the two enter into a prolonged discussion about the nature of theater, creativity and truth.
Most of Daniels’ dialogue is snappy and engaging but mostly feels like the same sort of frustrated bemoaning that characters of his type always express (e.g., “Nobody cares about theater anymore. Everyone’s at home binge-watching the Kardashians.”) Quite a lot of yelling, drinking and middle-aged angst. For Kenneth, the night that ensues is the epitome of “never meet your heroes,” and to Macias’ credit, he never makes Kenneth out to be weak, a loser or a crybaby about the whole ordeal. These are two characters with strong points of view that play off one another well. Despite being a case of “same-old, same-old” — with a nasty, washed-up mentor learning to care again and surprised pupils learning unexpected lessons — Guest Artist at least delivers two leads up to the challenge of landing it.
It is very, very clearly written as a play, and oftentimes play-to-film adaptations come across as static. Guest Artist doesn’t quite escape that curse, but director Timothy Busfield does a great job working around the more-or-less single-location with some smart camera choices. Additionally, the decision to set the film at Christmastime gives the overall tale warmth while the script moves in darker, colder directions. The dissonance between the season and the content is a smart choice that heightens the character’s plight and gives it more dynamic, cinematic tone.
So what if it’s one of those movies that ends with a character standing on a chair and screaming to the world about their worth as an artist? There’s not much new to Guest Artist, but it plays familiar tunes well enough to be compelling.
Guest Artist is a Narrative Feature finalist at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
7:15 p.m., Monday, Oct 14 — The Toby at Newfields
5:30 p.m., Friday, Oct 18 — AMC Castleton Square
5:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 19 — AMC Castleton Square
2:15 p.m., Sunday, Oct 20 — The Toby at Newfields