Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
I stumbled onto Two Step while trawling Netflix, and it turned out to be so tailored to my interests that I was embarrassed I didn’t know about it sooner.
Alex R. Johnson’s directorial debut focuses on two characters whose storylines converge halfway through the film. The first, James (Skyy Moore), is a socially awkward college dropout who inherits his recently deceased grandmother’s house and forms a friendship with Dot (Beth Broderick, better known as Aunt Zelda from Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), the middle-aged dance teacher living across the street. There’s a hint of G-rated May-September romance to their relationship, which stays endearingly innocent and believable largely due to Broderick. She invests her character with warmth and humor but never lets it spill over into floozy-with-a-heart-of-gold caricature.
At the same time, a squirrelly young con artist named Webb (James Landry Hébert) gets released from county lockup only to have his girlfriend Amy (Ashley Spillers) do a runner on him, taking all their money with her. He still owes his boss Duane (Jason Douglas) ten grand, so he sets about trying to earn the money by calling elderly people and conning them out of their retirement funds, just like he was doing in jail. When Webb calls James’s grandmother’s number pretending to be James himself, James immediately figures out what’s been going on and starts looking for a way to turn the tables on Webb.
I’m fascinated by the trajectory of indie crime dramas over the last fifteen or twenty years. The style used to be very flashy and sardonic, with creative camera angles and gabby stream-of-consciousness dialogue. That style seems to have gone out of fashion, and one that has sprung up in its place is crime dramas like this one, or the immensely satisfying Adam Wingard film The Guest, which take their cues more from the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye than from Tarantino or Ritchie. The setting of Two Step—suburban Austin in the fairly recent past—is fleshed out in its ordinariness, with amusing touches like a statue of an armadillo on its back with its legs in the air, perched on the desk of James’s fatherly lawyer. The jokes play to the movie’s strengths even at the risk of alienating non-Texans in the audience, like when someone calls Duane’s bodyguard “bigger than Brewster County,” a sparsely populated region of west Texas that could swallow Rhode Island with room left over.
James himself is neither a loser nor a hero in disguise, but is, like the quiet suburban landscape he inhabits, endearingly ordinary. He explains to Dot that he stopped going to class because he was tired of accepting everyone’s sympathy over the recent death of his parents (this is never explained in detail; as several characters point out, James has been through the wringer over the last few months). He’s smart enough to figure out that someone has been conning his grandmother, but he has no hidden powers of badassery that magically appear when he and Webb meet. In fact, Webb beats the crap out of him and James does what any normal twenty-year-old would do: he bursts into tears. James eventually rises to the occasion and gets his moment of heroism, but it’s clear that he’s going to need Dot’s help to recover and heal.
If this film had been made fifteen years ago, the hero would have been Webb, the scrappy young thug who just won’t stay down. Of course he would’ve had a different criminal vocation, since no one wants to root for someone who bilks little old ladies out of their retirement funds. But he’s closer to being a classic anti-hero than James is a classic hero. Webb has a total disregard for his own safety, a weird code of ethics, and an eerie calmness in tense situations, all of which would make him an entertaining badass in any other movie, the sort of character you don’t really want to hang out with but who you’d kind of like to be, for a day. But in Two Step, despite his bravado, Webb comes across as pathetic, as someone who has completely internalized the cycle of abuse and thinks no more of breaking his girlfriend’s nose than he does of cowering before his boss and begging for more time to repay him. One of my favorite scenes in the film involves Duane firing Webb, explaining that Webb’s short fuse makes him a liability to Duane’s businesses, legitimate and otherwise. All the qualities that should have made Webb the ideal anti-hero end up getting him thrown off the job. When Webb retaliates, it’s sad and scary rather than exhilarating.
If I had to pick one nit with Two Step, it would be that Beth Broderick more or less disappears during the second half of the film. It makes sense plot-wise, but I still missed her sparkle and verve. It’s a small complaint, though; this film moves from a charming first half to a genuinely harrowing second with ease and grace. A fantastic debut by Johnson and a worthy successor to the neo-noir genre.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.