Sunday, April 29, 2018

Talking Tribeca: Song of Back and Neck

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which takes place April 18th-29th.

Song of Back and Neck
Directed by Paul Lieberstein
U.S. Narrative Competition

There are many people who believe that physical pain can be indicative of emotional distress, and there is science to back some of it up. While it’s not always the case, those who suffer discomfort of certain body parts may have deeper issues to address, and curing ailments can be as simple as reducing stress in their daily life. Healing something without the use of Western medicine can be immensely satisfying, though there’s rarely a simple fix that doesn’t feature a relapse or require either a follow-up or repeated, consistent care.

Fred (Paul Lieberstein) isn’t doing great. His neck and back pain are so extreme that he crawls out of bed every morning to get ready and eat breakfast on the floor. His visit to a doctor reveals multiple issues that might require ten years of surgery and still not end up fixed, leaving little hope for his future. When the lifelong paralegal still working at his father’s firm meets Regan (Rosemarie DeWitt), a client seeking a divorce, everything changes. Her suggestion of acupuncture leads him to an unexpected relief, and he begins a relationship with Regan that enables him to be seen for who he is for the first time in his life.

This film gets its title from the bizarre music that the needles make when they sit in Fred’s back, prompting the doctor’s son, a cellist, to play alongside him. That element of wonder helps to complement an otherwise straightforward comedy story, one that finds an unlikely hero in Fred, who says hello to every person he passes in the office each time he walks by their desks each day, to take an active role in his life, bonding with a kindred spirit whose experiences have been very different from his own, save for the same crippling physical pain she has endured.

Lieberstein is best known as a writer and showrunner for “The Office,” on which he also starred as the frequently-maligned and miserable Toby. Here, directing himself, he demonstrates a wonderfully muted energy that makes him a great lead, and the always terrific DeWitt is well-cast opposite him. This story is sweet and innocent, full of entertaining and enjoyable moments. Its trajectory is relatively simple, and the film goes along with it, offering some drama along the way, resulting in a mildly memorable and endearingly funny film.


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