Near the beginning of “Cubby,” as its 26-year-old protagonist is dropped off by his mother to start a new life in New York, she tells him with brusque candor, “Mark, you are somewhat unbearable…but all the unbearable people move here! You’re going to kill it.”
From what we see in the next 90 or so minutes, she’s two-thirds correct.
“Cubby” is the debut feature film of writer, actor, and co-director Mark Blane, who has used a sort of semi-autobiographical fantasia as the vehicle for a quirky, taboo-rattling Indie comedy about an immature, socially-challenged young man coming of age in the big city. It’s not a new story, by any means, but the way he tells it is undeniably unique.
Blane plays Mark Nabel (an easy-to-spot anagram for Blane, just to make sure we know he’s playing a version of himself), a sheltered Midwesterner with artistic dreams and a portfolio of fetish-themed homoerotic sketches to prove it. After living his entire adult life in his mother’s garage, he finally gets his ticket to the big city in the form of a job offer from a prestigious art gallery. There’s just one problem – the job is a lie, concocted by Mark as a means to escape his cloying and over-protective mother and try to make it on his own. At first, his new life looks promising enough; he manages to talk his way into a shared-rent apartment with an old school acquaintance, meets a nice boy in the community garden, and even finds employment as a baby-sitter for Milo, the precocious child of a busy professional couple, with whom he quickly develops a special bond.
Unfortunately, the sustainability of Mark’s new situation is as tenuous as his grasp of reality; going off the anti-psychotics that keep him stable in favor of street drugs obtained from his hippie-ish roommate, he soon finds that the demands of adult life are more than he can handle, and things quickly begin to fall apart. Not only are his roommates threatening to kick him out, his job is at risk – and with it, his friendship with Milo, the one person who seems to accept and love him just as he is. In order to turn things around, Mark will have to find within himself the maturity required to meet the responsibilities expected of him – with a little help, perhaps, from “Leather Man,” a handsome older “Dom” conjured by a psychedelic cupcake from memories of a porn magazine he discovered as a child, who becomes his imaginary friend and counsels him on the importance of discipline and self-control.
In most cases, the premise of “Cubby” would make for a charming feel-good comedy – irreverent, perhaps, but ultimately heartwarming and, well, safe. Blane’s approach, however, shifts the whole thing off its familiar base and into a territory that feels uncomfortable, at best, and downright off-putting, at worst.
This has nothing to do with the movie’s sexual content. Indeed, Blane could have stood to confront us more with his character’s queerness or his fascination with leather and bondage. Mark’s interactions with Leather Man are more sweet and tender than erotically charged, and his sexuality plays little part in his journey outside of being a condition of his character – though it is arguably a factor in a key plot development that comes late in the film.
Nor is it because of the talent involved; Blane and co-director Ben Mankoff do a fine job of crafting their film with a gritty, urban look that both complements and contrasts its content, and the cast capably delivers performances that match the tone perfectly – Blane, in his first film role, brings plenty of personality to the screen, and Patricia Richardson’s performance as his mother is a scene-stealing standout.
What makes “Cubby” difficult is its misanthropy, and this is not necessarily a criticism. There are enough of these little Indie films out there that charm and amuse us while reinforcing our core values; most of them, however, feature likable characters. “Cubby” foregoes this custom, and instead peoples its story with characters who are very hard to like indeed.
True to his mother’s observation, the various New Yorkers we encounter through Mark are largely an insufferable lot. From his self-absorbed and cruel roommates to the self-righteous moms he meets when he takes Milo to the park, everyone who crosses his path – with the exception of that boy from the garden, of course – is unabashedly unpleasant. As for Mark himself, much of what he says and does throughout the film is, to put it bluntly, cringeworthy. He is petulant, manipulative, rude, overbearing, disingenuous and stubborn; he is childish, as opposed to childlike, making him less an anti-hero than simply a boorish oaf.
Yet somehow, it works. As Mark struggles to make his way among these hostile and abrasive New Yorkers, we are able to see that they, too, are struggling, just as unsure of themselves and their control over the lives they lead as he is, and – in their own ways – equally childish. They serve as a foil for him, helping us to see his shine as he works his way toward meeting them on their level. Taken all together, they create a portrait of humanity comprised of broken, uncertain souls mustering all they have to rise to the task of facing their daily life. On paper, it sounds pretty bleak; on film, it manages to be empowering.
It’s unclear whether all of this is intended by Blane’s movie, which he has written and co-directed in a style that seems as influenced by the grotesquery of early John Waters as it does by the quirky Indie dramedies of the 21st century. It may be laying too much on “Cubby” to interpret it as a message of empowerment for a world increasingly afflicted by anxiety, social and otherwise – though the fact that the title refers to a safe space where Mark found comfort as a child suggests that such issues are at the very heart of its story. In any case, the fact that it’s possible to read it that way speaks volumes about its creator’s distinctive voice.
Because in the end, that’s what makes “Cubby” – as well as its awkward hero – lovable in spite of itself. It’s a film that is often infuriating and sometimes difficult to watch, but it has a voice of its own that is not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen – and there are very few films out there today, Indie or otherwise, that can lay claim to that.