Peel is a coming of age drama about an adult (Emile Hirsch) with arrested development. Such a plot could make for an innocuous and forgettable feature, but director Rafael Monserrate aims for a much deeper experience and absolutely delivers on that subtle promise.
We meet Peel as a five-year-old who is literally clinging to his mother’s (a memorable Amy Brenneman) breast. Lucille believes her three boys (Peel’s brothers are named Will and Sam) needs as much love and comfort as possible, much to the chagrin of her exasperated husband (Victor Verhaeghe).
Dear old dad leaves the home with Peel’s brothers in tow, and growing up the next 25 years with just his mother for guidance has left our protagonist a bit sheltered for his own good. Seemingly slow witted to boot, Peel is a 30-year-old who may not be able to survive on his own, and after his mother unexpectedly passes, he must make ends meet to keep the only home he’s known.
A burly gambler named Roy (Jack Kesy) and his compadre Chuck (Jacob Vargas) move in to help with the rent, but both seem like trouble from a mile away. Garrett Clayton rounds out the motley crew as Chad, a charismatic youth who may know enough women to turn Peel’s domicile into a bachelor pad. Peel’s Korean American neighbor Chun Ja (Angelina Joo) may have eyes for our unsuspecting protagonist, and even in the face of tragedy, some good news may be around the corner.
Even with this array of people in his life, Peel is still left wanting, and he undertakes a mission to find Will (Troy Hall), Sam (Shiloh Fernandez), and his dad. Blood may be thicker than water, but Peel gradually realizes that making up for those 25 years is not an overnight process. There is much work to be done, and like with everything in his life, Peel may be ultimately out of his element.
Peel could have existed as a straight ahead feel good movie about the wonders eccentric people and, even in that cliched space, it may have worked. Emile Hirsch, however, doesn’t play Peel simply for laughs or pathos. As evidenced in The Motel Life, Into The Wild, and Prince Avalanche, Hirsch brings a three dimensional approach to his best work, and part of Peel’s creative heart and soul lies in Hirsch’s beautifully etched performance.
There is one sequence between Peel and Sam, as the two brothers attempt to reconnect (and disconnect) through years of pain and neglect, that absolutely threw me for a loop. Fernandez is, quite simply, absolutely heartbreaking in this sequence, and balanced by Hirsch’s nuanced approach, it’s a moment that places this movie on an entirely different level.
The film’s indie budget doesn’t make excuses for its low budget, and the shot composition and production design of Peel is also a sight to behold. A substantial amount of the feature takes place in the house, but one never feels cramped by its surroundings. A simple throw away scene as Peel waits for his ride is shot in a simple yet evocative fashion, as the shadowed light of an early morning gives him a flicker of repose. Director Rafael Monserrate enlivens the simplest of occurrences in an understated yet knowing fashion, and much of the film is an unabashed embrace of that truth.
My only complaint (actually it’s more of a nonsensical compliment) was an overabundance of talented actors left me wanting just a little bit more. Yaya DaCosta, though wonderful as Will’s concerned and loving wife, has only minutes of screen time in the film, and more of Garrett Clayton (as Peel’s most level headed roommate) would also have been welcome. Basically, each of the characters that float in and out of this narrative peaked my interest, and I would have loved to have spent even more time in their respective universe.
That being said, there’s a ton of wonderful story to go around, and though Peel has its share of wistful and eccentric moments, its roots are grounded in the here and now. Peel is doing his best to hold his head above water and swim to shore, and so are we in our own fashion. Don’t be surprised, however, if he’s a few strokes ahead of us.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Peel hits Digital May 7 via Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.