Most cinematic depictions of small-town life are frozen in time or genre. They're holdovers of the Western, or take away the wrong lessons from the Coen brothers' provincial skewerings, or are just flatly unwilling to admit the internet exists.
In the new film Phoenix, Oregon, though—and presumably in the real town near the state's southern border just a few miles from Medford—the people are realistically modern and mundane. They live in Phoenix because they've both made choices and deferred them. They compulsively refresh Facebook, give their boss the side-eye and attempt to take up jogging. What's more, this light drama from writer-director Gary Lundgren contains a few hallmarks of Southern Oregon in the present day. Venture capitalist money from the marijuana boom is poised to stimulate or erode the town's character, and local entrepreneurs sometimes aspire to a level of homegrown craft that exceeds the actual demand for it.
Lundgren has seen these dynamics unfold firsthand, having lived the past seven years in Ashland, which is 10 miles down Route 99 from the film's titular city and about 90 minutes from where the film was shot in Klamath Falls. Since 2009, he's made three other indies set in this neck of the woods: Calvin Marshall, Redwood Highway and Black Road.
"[These towns] feel almost like resting areas where people got off the highway to figure themselves out," Lundgren says. "People are looking to start a new chapter, but there's also this sense of treading water."
Reinvention and complacency stage a quiet skirmish at the center of Lundgren's low-stakes, often winsome movie about a couple of townies opening a combination pizza parlor and bowling alley. On one end of that duality, there's Bobby (James Le Gros), a bartender and graphic novelist who's not so much struggling with his art as not properly trying. On the other is Carlos (Jesse Borrego), an eternally optimistic chef with a near-mystical attachment to his pizza-making. It's easy to see these two as a tireless angel and a hangdog devil on the shoulders of any creative person—especially a filmmaker working on shoestring budgets.
"Bobby came to me on my worst days," Lundgren says. "And on my best days, I feel like Carlos."
If not the deepest thematic well, Lundgren's naturalistic script is an ideal fit for the film's cavalcade of gifted character actors. Leading the way, Le Gros is something of an Oregon movie all-star, appearing in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy and Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women. And Borrego is a cult icon for fans of 1993's Blood In Blood Out. Then there's Kevin Corrigan (Goodfellas, True Romance), who stands out as a bizarre bowling pinsetter mechanic named Al, and Lisa Edelstein (Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce), giving the film's strongest performance as the romantic lead Tanya, who transforms into a reality check. For fans of the American indie heyday circa 1990, it's quite a crew.
"Our casting director [co-producer Christine Sheaks] would say to me, 'This is a real actor, Gary. You don't know how good they are'" Lundgren says. "Even more so, they want to know who they're acting with."
On a production of this size, every cast and crew member reveals another connection that helped the movie get made, but one unlikely figure comes to the fore. Lundgren credits Barry Hanscam, owner of Hanscam's Bowling Center in Klamath Falls, with essentially saving the movie's central conceit.
"We looked all over Oregon for a bowling alley that felt so anachronistic that you really didn't know what decade it was when you walked in," Lundgren says. The filmmakers also needed a bowling alley they could throw into disrepair before polishing it into the well-lit warmth of Bobby and Carlos' opening day.
In that journey, the metaphor for the film's own creation is again apparent. When Carlos the optimist commands Bobby the pessimist to "visualize" their success, it's more than the half-empty encouragement of a Little League dad.
"You're jumping out of a plane," Lundgren says of making a movie, though he could just as well be talking about opening a bowling alley, "and hoping the chute opens."
SEE IT: Phoenix, Oregon screens at: Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., hollywoodtheatre.org, on Monday, May 13. 7 pm. $7-$9. Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., cinema21.com, on Wednesday, May 15. 7 pm. $7.50-$10. NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org, on Thursday, May 16. 7 pm. $4-$9. The filmmakers will attend all showings for post-film Q&A sessions.