Film and Television Features

Kwik Stop (Michael Gilio, 2001)

Actor-writer Michael Gilio's directorial debut Kwik Stop (2001) is rife with character, intelligence, and spontaneity.  Borrowing heavily from the small town locales and quixotic musical preferences of David Lynch as well as the sensibilities of Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66 (1998) and Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), the film achieves something refreshing in independent cinema by carefully balancing a gritty realism with the wide-eyed and often humorous fantasies of its multidimensional characters.  Championed by Roger Ebert upon release over a decade ago at his Overlooked Film Festival, Michael Gilio recently made a special guest appearance in Madison, WI, to talk about the film and his appreciation for the late Mr. Ebert.  Prior to the 35mm screening, a sentimental Gilio could not restrain his gratitude; "I'm here because of him."

Kwik Stop proceeds immediately as its title suggests by quickly panning through a convenience store as a young, hip James Marshall-looking renegade (Gilio himself) shoplifts deodorant and a tube of toothpaste.  He is halted by two runaway teenagers outside, DiDi and Sunny (Lara Phillips and Sunny Seigel, respectively).  DiDi, looking for a ride out of Bastion, a fictional Midwestern suburb, hops into his '70-style convertible.  Lucky her; the man, who coincidentally calls himself "Lucky," is supposedly headed to Hollywood to become an actor.  Cinematographer David H. Blood utilizes close-ups on environmental details and the couple's faces to convey what's initially left unspoken, but as it turns out, the couple is so eager to spill their inner ambitions that they find themselves romantically involved within hours at a motel.  Gilio channels their ideals through a forgotten era with confessional 1950s rockabilly music, which complements Lucky's illusory persona.  (DiDi's uncanny allure forces him to reveal his actual name, Mike).  As soon as the two have thought they've become soul-mates, Mike splits, leaving DiDi to fend for herself.  She wanders to the local haunt, Doc's Bar, and strikes up a conversation with a frazzled, alcoholic introvert named Emil (Rich Komenich), who seems lifted from a character in Todd Solondz's ironic Happiness (1998).

However, if Emil existed in a nihilistic Solondz film, he would surely be a wholly pitiable presence; instead, with refreshingly non-judgmental direction, the filmmaker of Kwik Stop instills a humanism into all characters' interactions; DiDi and Emil bond over a distaste for the claustrophobia of the small town, yet speak with an air of interminable interdependence. As the film itself is driven by persistent romanticism, Gilio achieves an urgency where the film feels like it could be assumed by any single character at any moment.  Kwik Stop promises to become a road movie, but it subverts expectations with emotive detours rather than a lengthy track of the physical journey.  As Sheila O'Malley astutely demonstrates in her review, the emotional obstacles are emphasized, and the tale is "really about the dramas we create for ourselves, especially when we are young."   As the two lovers serendipitously reunite, they decide to head to a local diner where they encounter a severe waitress named Ruthie (Karin Anglin), who apparently has a history with Mike.  Anglin's performance is seductive and commanding, and her psychological hold on Mike is altogether convincing, as proven in one of the film's late junctures.

Approaching denouement through seasonal shifts, the film tests the commitments of every character in surprising fashions.  Similarly, DiDi and Emil reunite in an environment that recalls the one in which they met; at precisely this point, the film cleverly achieves a sense of déjà vu.  A natural cyclical rhythm is established through periodic divisions (beginning with autumn), and by spring, moments and events repeat themselves in slightly modified means.  Gilio's attention to the minutiae of these scenes, like DiDi sharing a cigarette with Emil as she did with Mike in the opening, adds an intriguing clarity and stability to a film where the spontaneity of the performances tends to lead.  Kwik Stop's most striking and tender moments are additionally grounded with a haunting hundred-second piano lullaby, Elliott Smith's "Bye," that perfectly identifies the film's simultaneous sense of humor and melancholy.  A few characters desire to embark on great adventures or versions of the American Dream, but they are encumbered by their own humanity and ties to the past no matter how vigorously they rebel.

Unfortunately, Sundance Film Festival passed on Kwik Stop, and it was never given a theatrical run in the States.  Its viewership has been dependent upon prestigious accolades (as Gilio won the best director award at the Buenos Aires International Film Festival and a special jury prize at the St. Louis International Film Festival), word-of-mouth, DVD rentals/sales (the 2005 release by iFilm, with a retooled soundtrack due to licensing concerns, is now out-of-print), and most recently, video on demand.  Thankfully, through the enthusiasm of Internet cinephiles and regionally featured programming, films like Kwik Stop are deservedly given second life.  For a film concerned with characters in-flux, Gilio made his premiere with a fully formed and vulnerable feature.  It's a shame he has not stepped back into the director's seat, electing to pursue writing and acting, but the film's hypnotic pacing and assured performances will endure.