Low budget filmmakers deserve more credit than they usually receive. Forced to film on weekends, directors and actors are faced with lighting and continuity issues. They have no caterers, no costume designers, and no huge film crew. Furthermore, what might be considered odd shooting locations (bridges; inside a restaurant looking out) are regarded as prime. Sadly most of these low budget efforts are cast aside for what are considered better produced, better acted movies which might attract a national audience. The country gets a film like Baby Mama while a good story might show in Peoria for two nights in front of fifty people.
Writer Earl Nulton and director Neil Brady have delivered a low budget good story in An Occasional Fish, a film that examines the tensions of friendship when a lifelong agreement is suddenly broken. Much of the success stems from the talented acting of Earl Nulton (Jack) and Shivaun O’Donnell (Rita) as life-changing events cause turmoil and heartache and a barrage of emotional differences.
Although not quick to admit it, boys make lifelong promises in the course of their adolescent lives. That pact is golden and is sealed with a handshake, blood or even spit. Boys are usually good on their word, but sometimes, well, agreements do get broken when boys become men. In An Occasional Fish, Charlie (Joe Petrizzi, seen in the movie only through old photographs or scratched one reel films) broke what was thought to be a cardinal rule of friendship, a rule rooted in a favorite pastime for the two men: fly-fishing. Jack hasn’t been able to confront Charlie on the matter, and things quickly deteriorate. Charlie becomes seriously ill, and the act of reconciling becomes a much harder task as Jack finds himself incapable of expressing his hurt. Those who are close (Charlie’s wife, Rita; a local priest; etc.) try to make the necessary space available for a well needed soul bearing conversation, but Jack continually manages to shut people out, choosing to speak only to Charlie’s images. Working to mend his hurt, Jack alone can’t put to rest the squabble which ensued after his trust had been mistakenly broken. He figuratively embodies a fish caught in a net, needing someone to rescue him from his emotional entanglements and setting free his inner despair.
Beyond the storyline, the film at times might be confused as presenting itself as homage to the art of fly-fishing. Instead, the exquisitely lensed cinematography provides An Occasional Fish with a strong physical sense of nature’s unquestioned beauty and its particular effects on one man, adding new dimension to the overall story. Fly-fishing becomes respected as something nostalgic and deliberate – a subtle act stressing the importance found in patience and oneness, thus symbolically representing Jack’s past friendship with Charlie. But fly-fishing also symbolizes a radical departure from Jack’s normal life. Now, the one peaceful place in Jack’s life is the river, devoid of friends or doctors, where fly fishing takes on larger meaning as it provides needed sanctuary. With judgment as his only instrument, Jack needs time to emerge from the waters of his emotional weakness. Consequently for the viewer, we accept the river as a painfully obvious yet still touching metaphor for time’s inexorable flow and its unrivaled influence over man.
One distinct problem with many low-budget films is emotions tend to be overtly forced in a vain attempt to grab needed attention. However, director Neil Brady simply focuses the camera on Jack and lets the audience attentively identify with him as a conflict of emotions washes over his face and wrestles in his heart. Indeed, no line needs to be spoken to understand the anger, hurt and utter frustration Jack suffers. The lack of dialogue in favor of dramatic silence present throughout the film should not be considered as a first time director’s miscue, but instead regarded as Brady’s clever technique of adding additional character without being emotionally pretentious.
An Occasional Fish might be dubbed as a sentimental drama; however, it is a good deal more. It’s a spiritual movie – Jack bears his own heavy cross as he tries to find harmony within himself as well as spiritual harmony with his troubled world – which never fears to examine the strength of trust and the power of personal convictions, albeit with a little bit of subtle humor. The humor lies in a sequence of events stemming from well-timed notes, strangely coincidental to those found in this year’s P.S. I Love You. Whether the notes help heal the wounds received from broken trust is left for the viewer to decide. Nevertheless, this movie also observes the powerful value of promises using genuinely affecting compassion.
The end result is an intelligent effort that speaks of the needed importance of grace, harmony and patience in great moments of friendship and loss. The film’s thoughtfully slow emotional impact does build, and no one will mock you if you find yourself speechless at the final haunting scenes. Indeed, the surprising trusted diligence and emotional sincerity found in An Occasional Fish make the somewhat short length and sound editing issues of this debut feature completely forgivable. Through the emphasis of a heartfelt storyline and believable characters, Nulton and Brady skillfully demonstrate how weekend-warrior filmmaking and a small budget can create a movie free of oversensitive Hollywood fluff.