“Were you filming when I was crying? That was good stuff,” exclaims Betsey as she expresses her desire to capture something ‘real’ on video.
And failing that she would probably settle for capturing something ‘artistically effective.’
And failing that, ‘attention-grabbing’ would probably be suitable too.
The dichotomy that exists in most artists is one of integrity versus exposure, and this battle is one of many thematic threads explored in Actors, a tale of sibling rivalry/collaboration taken to a truly bizarre extreme. The film stars Betsey Brown, who also wrote and directed, as a version of herself. Here, Brown is a working actress/aspiring filmmaker who wishes to make her first feature. Her brother, also a working actor, has already completed his first feature (it’s called Assholes, it’s real, and you should watch it), and he is now embarking on his next artistic effort. Namely, he’s decided to socially transition into Petra, actress, social media influencer, and slinger of Care Bear memes.
This doesn’t immediately sit well with Betsey, who sees her brother as a privileged white dude co-opting an identity he hasn’t earned. And when Petra starts landing roles that Betsey auditions for, it’s time for her to pull a stunt of her own: she and her boyfriend are going to have a baby.
One could be forgiven for looking at this basic plot description with worry. On the surface it looks like the film is going to be a crass mockery of hot button issues, but if you engage with it on its own strange terms, you’ll see that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. And to even call the above plot description a “plot description” would be a bit of a misnomer. This is because Actors is not a film with a typical structure. Existing somewhere on the spectrum between Schizopolis and Grey Gardens, there’s a wholly unique energy on display. While the overarching story is clarified only in the film’s final moments, Actors unspools as a parade of vignette-ish scenes, some in classic narrative form, some taking the form of social media posts, all dancing around the idea of being actual documentary footage from the real lives of Betsey and Peter (and their parents, who play themselves).
There’s also a very fun reference to Possession.
The mode of the material is often crass, and fearlessly so. Yet there is a strong self-aware streak that keeps things just a wink and nod away from being prankish. The most bizarre beats don’t feel like bits so much as they feel like slices of a real life, albeit a delightfully off-kilter one. When Betsey and her boyfriend engage in subtitled baby talk, there’s an earnestness that highlights that this is not silliness for its own sake. When Peter goes on long-winded rants about the artistic integrity of his maybe-transness, it feels not like a provocation, but rather like an actual artist, with actual delusions, working through his actual shit.
Apart from reactionary responses to the contents of the plot, it’s the screwy construction and loose relationship with documentary realism that will likely frustrate some viewers. But what some call may see as “first draft” material others call will call “raw.” It’s a matter of taste, really, and there’s simply no way to know if this sort of thing will work for you until you watch it, which you should!
What’s undeniable is that if you can jibe with its strange magic, a strong thematic structure emerges. It’s one of the more honest and accurate explorations of sibling rivalry I’ve seen, and it delivers a scathing burn to the ego that comes with being an artist, while also celebrating the artistic passion that comes with said ego. Actors is different from Assholes (mentioned because its the only other feature in the Brown/Vack cinematic universe, if you will) in that there’s a sweetness here that betrays the Waters-ian mania. For all its nipple hair, vomit, and talk of Petra’s penis, a warm portrait of an artistic family is what emerges in the end. Also undeniable is that Brown, one of the most exciting actresses working today, has proven herself to be just as strong a filmmaker. Her style might not follow classic filmmaking rules (or any rules, really), but that’s what makes weird outsider shit like this so exciting to see. Audiences deserve to be challenged as much as they deserve to be entertained, and to that end Actors is just what the doctor ordered.
Directed by Betsey Brown
Written by Betsey Brown
Starring Betsey Brown, Peter Vack, Jane Brown, Ron Brown
Not rated, 80 minutes