Although I didn’t see many of the narrative films in competition at the LA Film Festival this year, if for no other reason than its hearty substance I would probably have picked Sawdust City over the winner, Familiar Ground. This is a great example of something or other: the synopsis in the programme made it sound like a tired Midwest indie. It’s debatable whether it’d have seemed more or less attractive if they’d added that it was inspired specifically by Cassavetes’ terrific Husbands, and by him and Peter Falk in Mikey and Nicky. First-time director David Nordstrom was on hand and dedicated the screening to the just-passed Falk. He would have liked it a lot, I believe.

Nordstrom was not slavish in his inspiration, and nor did he did he confine himself, channeling a load of wintery 70s vibe with a sailor and a knapsack. A first-rate opening montage introduces us in very natural fashion to two brothers, who’ll see each again after some years, with closeness and caginess. On the soundtrack, Pete the sailor calls brother Bob from a bar, chews the fat, let’s on he’s in town and says he’s got to find dad. They spend the night, and the rest of the film, on a bar crawl. Some stuff comes out, of course, but mostly the film lets them just be together, spar, drink, annoy, and generally fit.

The whole premise allows Nordstrom to hit obvious notes, but he nails almost all of them, dispensing the secrets of absence and family with care, and creating a couple of central characters whom one would be happy to watch doing almost anything together. He takes Bob himself, opposite Carl McLaughlin, a quiet, stolid presence who perfectly registers restrained annoyance, and makes his shell almost visible. Bob is a remarkable creation and a selfless performance – he can be such a dick at times that strangers want to beat him up. But he’s always ready to forget and raise another beer, and his obligatory toilet confessional is properly great.

Just that film would be pretty fine, but this one has a killer touch: the brothers are joined by Gene (Lee Lynch), a free-flowing barfly and practiced freeloader, who injects a great deal of amusement into the proceedings, supposedly guiding them to their dad. The kicker is that it’s like late 60s Dennis Hopper is in the movie: his first shot is an instant classic, sitting at the bar, telling a hilarious story, with cowboy hat, shaggy beard. But it’s not an imitation: in speech he has echoes of Hopper, but his own voice. Lynch is brilliant, in a really unusual move pulled off to a tee.

The film plays out to a spot-on soundtrack of 70s bar rock, and the feeling for that kind of small-town bar existence is note perfect (filmed in Nordstrom’s home town). Photography is handsomely appropriate, by James Laxton; there’s a great deal of humour; and the emotional stuff is almost all handled well. If the final dialogue is cliché-ridden, the characters have earned it – and would they not be likely to talk that way? Thing is, Cassavetes and Falk wouldn’t have, and one misses the first-rate naturalism of the rest of the script. But overall, terrific.

Rating: 8.88/10

Watch the Trailer.