Passenger Side (2009)

Passenger Side

Starring his brother Joel, Matthew Bissonnette’s Passenger Side is an autobiographical tale of sibling rivalry and Los Angeles odysseys.

Passenger Side

L.A. Story by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

L.A. is a lonely place. Especially when you’re too cool for friends. Like Michael. He’s an Angeleno hipster of indie cords and faded T-shirts. Even vinyl’s too trendy.  So when his ex-addict brother Tobey calls him out of the blue for a favour – an endless round of errands across the City of Angels – he could only say no. It’s the third feature by Canadian and now LA resident Matt Bissonnette – a playlist movie which explores a depressingly homogenous underbelly of Californian boulevards and highways. With its backstory of a copywriter whose first novel sank without a trace and a feckless actor younger brother played by the director’s own brother, Joel Bissonnette, Passenger Side appears disturbingly autobiographical. But the cannibalisation of his own life gradually gives way to gracious soul-baring and as the two brothers bond over a beer and a stray dog, there’s a strangely enjoyable hopelessness that although people may not change, they can learn at least to enjoy each other’s company.

Based on the Wilco song of the same name, Matt Bissonnette’s Passenger Side is a rock’n’roll odyssey about empowerment and brotherly oneupmanship. Michael works hard at being cool, anachronistically surrounding himself with typewriters, landline phones and mix tapes. He’s an observer, always looking in from the sidelines, snatching at the scraps of life thrown his way. Tobey, on the other hand, lives hard. A once talented actor, his life now revolves around staying clean and searching for Theresa, his ex. But his lust for life is as hands-on as ever.  So, is it really fate that makes Tobey call his brother on his birthday to ask him to spend the day ferrying him round L.A. in his old jalopy?  And after a coercive phone call from his mother, Michael acquiesces, setting them on the rocky road to fraternal reconciliation.

It’s a nuanced sibling rivalry, as elder brother, and seemingly more together, Michael vaunts his meagre successes over back-on-the-rails Tobey. And it’s no mean feat that Adam Scott manages to keep his delusions of superiority hidden for so long. It’s not until the end of the film, as he squirms squeamishly at two Mexicans getting into his car, and bleeding how dare they, that the scales start to tip in Tobey’s favour – Michael’s helplessness outshone by his brother’s natural empathy, as well as his ability to speak Spanish. While Michael is a loner who even stoops to an illicit affair with his brother’s ex-girlfriend Theresa, Tobey’s friends cover the city, from Long Beach to the Valley, and his interest in humanity contrasts starkly with his brother’s egocentricity. As such, their journey together is not only an apt illustration of the hopeless competitiveness of sibling relationships, but it also elevates their day’s meanderings to an existential quest for life’s meaning.

Whether either of them gain anything from their day’s wanderings remains a moot point. You might expect an illness ex machina or even a confessional twist to bring them together and render their day’s nothingness meaningful, but Passenger Side‘s denouement is frustratingly understated. As Theresa decides to return to Tobey, abandoning her laconic affair with Michael, it seems like poetic justice. Life returns to where it started, leaving Michael almost exactly where he was at the beginning, just now with a dog for company. Tobey, on the other hand, has won back his Penelope, and the odyssey is over. It’s a small victory, but also a kind of cinematic apology as Matt Bissonnette’s onscreen avatar is so tenderly trounced by his younger brother.

Passenger Side has a pleasingly indie aesthetic that fits nicely with its mix tape and road movie genesis. And with great performances from both Adam Scott and Joel Bissonnette and a sparky script, it’s an enjoyable ride through the Joshua trees. A low-key dramatisation of the epic fraternal feud, Passenger Side pits one brother against the other, as they choose between living and observing, action and passivity. In the end, neither really learn anything and both brothers remain like adult children, unable to see beyond their own wants. That’s just life. And the life Bissonnette depicts is an existence beyond failure, where dreams and hopes languish too far beneath to surface. It’s a sobering thought for siblings everywhere. But still, there’s a kind of hope, as the brothers find an uneasy unity in their joint quest for Theresa. I’d like to think it’s out of mutual love and respect that they refuse so adultly to let her come between them, but maybe it’s just apathy.

Passenger Side is released in the UK on 1st April 2011

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