Okay, I’ll fess up. The whole reason I volunteered to review The Casserole Club is that I’ve always had a little crush on Kevin Richardson – he’s the only reason I have Backstreet Boys CDs in my collection (wait, did I just admit I have Backstreet Boys CDs?). Add to that my love for Jane Wiedlin from The Go Go’s and Daniele Sea, who quickly became my main reason to keep watching The L Word, and it seemed like the universe was speaking: review this film. That or writer/director Steve Balderson made this film just for me. And if he did, let me just say, he did a fine job.
The Casserole Club’s all California ’60s mod, offering timely resonances for those who are currently obsessed with the TV show Mad Men and effectively mines a similar bleakness as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Anchored by three news events from 1969, the film focuses on a group of housewives who begin hosting dinner parties that are basically competitions to determine who made the best casserole, as judged by the husbands. What starts as a playful reason to get together becomes a darker competition as the underlying boredom and self-interest of these suburbanites’ lives gradually rises. Passion, love, indifference, boredom, doubt, irresponsibility – all quickly mix together into a something less than tasty for the characters and remarkably satisfying for us the audience.
Purity and innocence cannot last long in these environs, and tragically, they don’t. Every actor here deserves praise, and the film won five Independent Vision Awards, including Best Actor (Kevin Richardson), Best Actress (Susan Traylor) in addition to Best Picture, Best Director and Best Production Design. All are well-deserved. Besides Richardson and Traylor, the other performances that have stayed with me include Daniela Sea’s and Jennifer Grace’s. The two portray women who seem at the opposite extremes of coolness and yet each have a slowly evidenced vulnerability that when exposed, makes us feel the discomfort of seeing something perhaps too personal.
Michael Maize, Pleasant Gehman, Starina Johnson, Mark Booker, Hunter Bodine, Garrett Swann. The Casserole Club’s strengths are its actors and Balderson’s willingness to allow the story to feel understated in its examination of this intimate group of neighbors who are not quite prepared for the intimacy that results from their get togethers (and I’m not talking about the sex). I should say that the film is not all doom and gloom – while its view of humanity is rather piercing, there are characters who seem to have found ways to navigate the murky waters of marriage and relationships with a certain honesty and love. But perhaps what most stays with us are the cautionary aspects of the tale.
I don’t know how to convey how haunting this film is – I was expecting to enjoy the fluffy novelty of some favorite celebrities in an indie film, only to discover as I watched something much more nuanced and heartfelt than I expected. This film stayed with me for days. Not because of any great cinematic feats – while the production design feels right on, the camera work is rather mundane. No, it stayed with me because it’s a bit audacious: the director and actors took risks. They took a scenario that could have been simply a gimmick played for its camp value or for its surface textures and instead made it into a reflection of the disquiet that can infiltrate our souls.
The Casserole Club is now available on DVD.