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AFI Fest 2013: ‘Congratulations!’ - Film Review

Congratulations! is a most interesting film.  Written and directed by Mike Brune, and shot completely in one location (the interior and exterior of his parent’s home), this is a film that takes the well-worn police procedural convention and turns it on its ear within the first five minutes, and then just keeps on turning. Little boy Paul Gray has disappeared, literally, from the family living room during his eldest brother’s high school graduation party, right under the nose of his mother, played by the wonderful Rhoda Griffis.  And so, naturally, the Missing Persons Department is called in, and this is where all conventions end.  Leading the investigation is Detective Skok, brought to life in earnest by John Curran, but Skok is unlike any Missing Persons detective you have ever seen, or probably ever will see.  He asks strange questions, has out-of-the-box ideas, and yet is completely serious.  This is where the comedy comes from, and the movie is driven by a weird, deadpan, absurdist type of humor, but it never breaks into jokes, because no one is making any jokes.  Who would make jokes about a missing child?  And yet, you laugh when Skok questions Paul’s mom about just that.

The humor comes from the circumstances and the way the characters interact and deal with the situation, especially after Skok and his team move into the Gray house, plastering Missing Child signs all throughout the entire house and on the outside, too.  You see, Skok believes Paul is still in the house, so randomly he, his team, and the family will walk around the house, which has been searched around 100 times, calling out Paul’s name.  They write a chalk message on the driveway next to a drawing Paul did of himself, thinking it may be a message he left for them. Skok interrogates Paul’s three brothers, all with hilarious results, and eventually deputizes two of them to aid in the search.  One of the best visual gags, again played completely straight, is a computer program the Missing Persons team uses to age a photo of Paul hour by hour, and it returns later in an even more hilarious, and somewhat somber, way as the case continues to drag on. After the screening, writer/director Mike Brune commented that many people have said that they feel the police are incredibly stupid in the film, and his response has been that he believes them not to be incredibly stupid, but rather incredibly thorough.  

Writing this review, I realized how wonderfully hard the movie is to explain, because it delves so deeply into absurdist storytelling, and that it is something that must be seen to be fully understood, or felt.  Nothing is played for laughs, but laughs are in abundance and, sometimes, the laughs are uncomfortable, and it is an amazing feat of filmmaking, because you are never laughing at the characters, nor are you laughing with the characters.  Rather, you are laughing in response to the characters.  Underneath all of this absurd and surreal deadpan comedy, there is an underpinning of sadness, and it comes from Paul’s mother, who at one point is put on suicide watch due to how the case is affecting her emotional state (and somehow Brune makes this funny without being insensitive) and Detective Skok.  As we get to know Skok, we begin to realize that his cases are all he has, and so when he moves in with the family, he truly wants to be a part of their family, as he has no family and not even much of a life, himself.  He wants so badly to solve the case and make the family happy, but he also loves being a part of the Gray’s life.  So, within this bizarre story is a sincere, troubled heart, and it is a heart that just wants to be a part of something and to feel needed. 

Congratulations! is part of the Breakthrough series at AFI Fest, which means it was sent to AFI through their blind submission process.  AFI had no previous knowledge of the film beforehand, and it was one of four films selected this way, out of thousands, to screen at the festival.  If that doesn’t say something about the uniqueness of this film, then I don’t know what does.  Perhaps Skok’s relating one of his past Missing Person cases, in which a father was throwing his son up in the air playing "helicopter," and one day the son just never came back down.  I can’t say for sure, because ‘for sure’ is not something I say.  But, I can hope.