“Do you ever wish you had a do-over? Another chance at something?”
Angel by Thursday is the feature-length writing and directing debut of Jeff Wallace, a Hawaii native who is also a firefighter with the Honolulu Fire Department. He sought local faces in front of and behind the camera for his film. It’s a genuine independent production.
The story follows two separate families brought together by an unknown connection. Julia (Olga Kalashnikova) is living in Berlin when a letter appears in her mailbox, postmarked Hawaii, featuring a nickname only her long-lost mother would’ve used. She travels across the world and quickly meets Clint Tobias (Kenneth Matepi), a pretty prickly police officer who takes care of his brother, Toby (Russell Subiono), who is mentally impaired due to a childhood accident. Soon they come to realize her long-lost mother, Sara (Jennifer Kinsey), binds them in a surprising way.
Untangling Sara’s life, impending death and what all of it means to the three of them is the focus of Wallace’s script. There are a few scenes that stand out, particularly the late-game revelation about Toby’s accident. A number of flashbacks to Sara’s drug-dealing past are also fraught with the level of violence and trauma she endured. Although an overwrought score makes some of these scenes edge along the barrier of corny (and sometimes does tip over), most first-time filmmakers with a budget this limited have this weakness. It’s forgivable if the storytelling feels genuine, and Wallace is definitely aiming for big emotions and big statements about grief, loss and forgiveness.
One technical aspect that does hurt the film, though, is its additional dialogue replacement, or ADR. Matepi and Kalashnikova do decent work with their roles, especially for a script that gives them a lot of expositional dialogue. Subiono, though, is a bit difficult to describe. The truth of his condition is reserved for the ending of the film, and the expression of his brain damage is largely speech patterns and behavior that feels stereotypical onscreen. It isn’t helped by the ADR, which makes pretty much all the actors’ dialogue sound slightly detached from their performances. It isn’t that their lip syncing is off, like a bad dub; the dialogue just doesn’t sound natural. For the leads, it isn’t a problem, but for Toby, it does make Subiono’s performance feel a little more awkward than intended.
There’s a natural advantage to living and shooting a film in Hawaii, and Wallace takes advantage of his home state’s inherent beauty. Scenes on beaches and boats, or just characters being on the island, are all very well-framed and choreographed. His direction and editing with interior scenes is a little more erratic, although understandably so. Lighting is what it is, given the budget; with a film at this level, the audience has to bring some amount of charity when something doesn’t look like a perfect facsimile of reality. There’s also a flashback when a Vietnam War vet has superimposed recollections of war that reminded me of many a popular .gif. It feels silly, but then again, anything to get the point across is fair game.
Look, a film like Angel by Thursday is a labor of low-budget love by the cast and crew, built to play at indie festivals and among hometown audiences who recognize the settings and the performances, and it will serve as a résumé piece for all involved. It’s traditionally corny in the way a lot of small dramas are. It was crafted with limited resources, a story that needed to be told and a drive to just get the thing done. There aren’t many folks who have the patience for smaller films like this, but if it’s on the docket at a festival and you’re inclined to see what a few dedicated people can put together with a shoestring budget and an earnest message, it will fit the bill. It isn’t great, and doesn’t always land its marks, but sometimes the fun is just seeing someone work as hard as they can to tell a story that might, to the right audience, make someone feel better.