On a hilly stretch of French road, American friends Kyle (Kyle Marvin) and Mike (Michael Angelo Covino) puff and gasp through a bike ride that’s just hit its toughest patch. Kyle is getting married. Mike is his best man. The two have been friends since childhood, and their banter is easygoing and cheerful. Or at least it is right up until the moment that Mike offhandedly drops a bombshell: He’s sleeping with the bride-to-be, and has been doing so, on and off, since Kyle met her. “If I catch you, I’m going to kill you,” Kyle blurts out. “Yeah, that’s why I waited for the hill,” Mike responds. And, at the same time, you can add to the collection of long-take, elaborately choreographed shots the aforementioned uproarious set piece that is the nine-minute opening sequence of The Climb. The film captures Mike’s confession and its immediate fallout in a single, winding take; where we’re watching a friendship implode in real time. It’s the rare, special instance where keeping the camera rolling truly benefits the material: Like Kyle and Mike, we’re trapped within a bottle of discomfort, un-spared by the artificial release of a cut. Plus, it’s pretty funny, watching the actors navigate an emotional minefield while literally navigating the twists and turns and traffic of a long road, delivering lines in between gasps for air.
The scene, on its own, could operate perfectly well as a short film — and indeed, it once was. Marvin and Covino are real-life friends and also the filmmakers; the latter directed The Climb from a script they wrote together. They’ve expanded their stand-alone version of the story into a full feature by asking where these characters might go, and how their lives might change, after that fateful ride. And in doing so, the two have made an ambitious, caustic, and funny comedy about the uphill attempt to mend a friendship after one party shatters it with betrayal. The Climb unfolds as a series of cleanly delineated vignettes: little inspired sitcom episodes, each pushing the audience forward through time, with changes in the characters’ appearance marking its passage. The narrative’s zigzagging course can be as unpredictable as blender splatter; this is a movie that opens with the implied calling off a wedding and then flashes forward immediately to a funeral.
The film’s anchor is the messy relationship at its center, and the sharply defined personalities. Marvin plays Kyle as a pushover good-guy — a true golden retriever of a man, so forgiving and loyal that everyone in his life walks all over him. Mike, by contrast, is a distinct species of prick: Covino conveys the internal wrestling match of a selfish person trying to rebuild himself into something better with faulty tools. The film’s overall comic sensibility is relatively singular. It’s nuanced and broad, grounded in emotional reality but still vulnerable to flights of (shaky) musical fancy and bursts of sudden slapstick violence. Covino stages several of the film’s discrete scenarios the same way he does the opening one: via long unbroken shots, including a Christmas sequence that captures multiple conversations with a Steadicam prowling around the perimeter of the house, looking into the windows. Not all of these are exactly motivated (in fact some of the execution gets to be rocky) — this is the kind of debut that definitely comes off like director with something to prove. At the same time, so much American comedy is so indifferently directed that it can be refreshing to encounter something like this.
As the years elapse, the two men pass in and out of each other’s lives. The survival of their bond becomes entwined, eventually, with Kyle’s reconnection with his high school sweetheart, Marissa (Gayle Rankin). Mike, like everyone in Kyle’s family, thinks she’s a bad fit for his friend, and that becomes the fuel for his misguided crusade for redemption — a kind of suicide mission of romantic sabotage. Is it possible to do something wrong for the right season? The Climb doesn’t take a side in this love triangle of sorts — in part because Rankin, in her strong performance, makes Marissa too amusing in her frankness and sympathetic in her exasperation to earn our disdain. Whether she’s right for Kyle remains an open question, straight through a final stretch that becomes overwrought yet still subverts some expectations.
Still, the big mystery throughout is actually whether Mike is even right for Kyle. Can he change? Can anyone? The Climb never denies that their friendship is dysfunctional and perhaps irreversibly toxic: a collision of the unstoppable force of Mike’s pathological destructiveness and the unmovable object that is Kyle’s inability to walk away. Yet the film also believes in the genuine love the two men have for each other, to the point where it flirts with concluding that someone can be a lousy friend and still a person you want in your life. There are no sentimental easy answers or shortcuts to uplift in this unusually thorny buddy comedy. Like Kyle and Mike, it just keeps pedaling forward, in the hope that some kind of clarity might materialize at the top of the hill. Fraught with heartfelt observations and unique emotional minefields, The Climb sees a bromance get its boundaries tested for a finite, unusually prickly buddy comedy.
The Climb is currently playing in Select Theaters