A solid definition for madness is a state of frenzied or chaotic activity. Phil Harding, the lead player in this production, is clearly a mad man in the making. Seemingly a functional family man, he is hell bent on holding to the hope his baseball career is not all but bygone. Fear and frustration lead Phil to battle mental demons that directly translate to unsavory, as well as unsettling, decisions. Over ninety plus minutes, one will witness Harding’s transformation in action and attitude to adjust to his ever-evolving woes. It is a tale that leaves its audiences both awestruck and in admiration of the story and its storytellers.
High and Outside was penned by thirteen time producer, Dan O’Dair, who selected this to be his inaugural film screenplay. Holding the high honor of directing this delightful film is Evald Johnson, whose appearance and actual filming technique shadow, in some ways, fan favorite Kurt Sutter. To O’Dair’s credit, the script is sprinkled full of powerful and poignant story lines. This allowed the actors to build boisterous, yet somewhat benevolent, on-screen beings. As for Johnson, it can best be summed up in four small words: bold, brilliant, and breathtaking film making. Clearly, this combination of creatives was a perfect pairing to develop deeply moving and magical cinematic art.
For me, there tends to be those few actors that stand out among the fold in any film. In this scenario, my top three are Phil Donlon, Geoffrey Lewis and Lindsey Haun. Before my elaboration on the extraordinary Mr. Donlon, let me detail my deep thoughts on Geoffrey and his hard hitting portrayal of Len Harding. Len is a former baseball player who was purely a legend, having left a legacy on fields near and far. Present day portrays him as feeble, fumbling, and far from his strongest self. He appears resigned to the sad reality that life may not last long, and has become rigid and full of regrets. Lewis blends a perfect mix of sadness and sarcasm, paired with humor and hope to his scenes. We question his motivation – is he weary, yet well intended? Does he harbor any real resentment towards his son? Geoffrey took a simple person on paper and propelled him into a sizable and sentimental man. He brings a cluster of class and charisma to a character whose spirit has seemingly left its soul. But alas, is this not what we want our Hollywood legends to do – leave us with a performance pleasing to the eyes and ears. Bravo, Mr. Lewis in again showing us you were surely a legend on the large screen and in life.
Lindsey Haun was handed the role of Heather, Harding’s wife, who is caught in the constant crossfires of loving and leaving Phil. It is obvious throughout this narrative that she needs far more from Phil, who has seemingly become physically and psychologically unavailable to her in short time. You can feel her desire and desperation to make her marriage work, yet there remains the raw reality that her husband is consumed by his own cravings. Haun stands as a strong counterpart to Donlon’s character, in that she showcases high levels of connectivity and clear chemistry with him. She convinces us to champion for Heather, even when our heads would be subconsciously screaming stay away. She brings a breath of air into Heather, who is froth full of humiliation and huge rage. Clever casting of a fundamentally fabulous actress.
As to supporting roles, the addition of actors Ernie Hudson and David Yow was sheer genius. Hudson has a smaller part as Sanzone, who is Harding’s coach and career long pal to his padre. It is a testament to Hudson’s true talent that he is able to bring such fierce fervor and clouded compassion to one who we only slightly see on screen. He commands our attention, yet we cringe by his direct and demanding tone and temperament towards Phil. As always, an A plus performance. Mr. Yow was cast as Len’s caretaker whose intentions may or may not be in his best interest. What I found most interesting about David’s performance is that he carries a small measure of intensity to each screen shot that is visible by his body language. The audience can feel his irritation with the situation and those that surround him, yet we want to believe he will choose to protect vs. punish this family. Truly, he was an entertaining and engaging performer throughout the film.
This brings us to the superlative and superb performance of our lead, Phil Donlon. There are many layers to the character of Phil Harding, and Donlon wholeheartedly did his homework to come to this dance. On the primary level, he and Len share a complex and somewhat cold relationship. Secondly, he is surely struggling to maintain his marriage, which appears to be three hot seconds from faltering. He is also barely able to carry the crucial responsibilities that most fathers hold in high regard. We also witness his conditional friendship with fellow cohorts, and that is becoming weaker and more worthless. Harding has become a shell of his former self, and the audience becomes invited to watch him attempt to win back his integrity and initial existence. Donlon looks wise is a cross between the dashing gents in grand Hollywood, those being Johnny Depp, Robert Deniro and Ray Donovan, aka Liev Schreiber. Honestly, it was crafty to cast a man of better than average looks, as this seems to fit the persona of the slew of baseball players – good looking, great skills, and some sense of entitlement. He even mastered the meatier look of one who is forced to resign from his regular day job and lounges around looking for direction. So, Donlon does ace the actual look. As to embodying of emotion, he is a master mind at switching gears in a sheer second. Although he is often portraying a poor schmuck who has become self-indulgent and somewhat obsessive, we still see the struggle and sorrow. We want to reach out and slap him in one moment, then hold his hand and hug him in the next moment. Donlon shows us the vulnerable and valued parts of Harding’s hollowed character. He makes us feel and want Harding to flourish, and the biggest asset an actor can hold is to make audiences connect to characters on an existential and emotional level. Donlon also leaves his audience with the lingering question: is his dream worth the destruction? Donlon is quite deserving of the top billing he received, and dare I go so far as to say that he is deserving of an array of awards for his work in this finely tuned feature.
I must not be remiss in also mentioning the menagerie of unique music freckled throughout this film. Not only was there a vast variety as far as general genre, but further it fit so exquisitely within each shot. It truly aided in setting the tone, and I surely hope to see a movie soundtrack at some time.
To conclude, High and Outside is the story of dreams and disappointments; love and loss. It is a blend of mania and mixed emotion between relationships that seem ripe for healing and happiness. It is a perfect portrayal of those seemingly broken in a wicked world of imperfection. It is, in some ways, the small history of every human heart at one stage or another. Spend ninety eight minutes to see and hear a story that stirs the senses – support High and Outside.
As of today’s writing, High and Outside will be screening in various states across the United States, and is also set for eventual distribution.