There are those movies you will always remember because they try something you have not seen before; something innovative that breathes freshness into a familiar premise. The Climb is one of those films. The story of two close friends who have their friendship tested by a woman that comes between them sounds like a film we have all seen numerous times. What works so well with The Climb is the cinematic approach used to tell it, reinventing it in unexpected and ambitious ways.
The film’s opening scene, which also is based on their short film submission at Sundance, has the friends, Mike and Kyle (Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin) biking up the hills of the French Alps. Mike, the fitter, and more experienced cyclist handles it rather easily while Kyle struggles. In the middle of a rather casual conversation that mostly covers cycling tips, Mike throws a figurative spoke in Kyle’s wheels. He confesses to Kyle that he has slept with his fiance. Although furious, Kyle struggles with the challenge of biking uphill just as much with the heartbreaking news. His inability to catch up to his more experienced biking friend makes what could be ordinary into something quite extraordinary. The use of dry, absurdist humor continues throughout the film as it explores the friends’ relationship, warts and all.
It probably does not sound like much, but the aspect of the scene that makes it stand out beyond the clever setup is the technique behind the delivery. It is presented all in long takes – as is the rest of the film. The camera rolls and moves throughout the scene without cutting. Instead of a series of obvious edits/cuts, it is a compilation of long shots ranging from 7-10 minutes; kind of like a bromantic comedy version of 1917 but in funny, bite-sized chunks. While the first scene certainly must have had its filmmaking challenges, it’s the remaining scenes where the ambitious cinematography pays off in both style and substance.
The long takes are used to visit key moments of the pair’s relationship, journeying through the years, the ups, downs, and the awkward. Essentially, Mike is like a bad penny that keeps turning up and Kyle, no matter how many times he is burned, cannot resist picking it up. This is in part because Kyle’s parents also treat Mike like a second son of their own. The duo has a natural chemistry that must derive from their longtime, real-life friendship. That’s one reason, unlike many comedies, they do not feel like characters, but rather more like “normal” guys from your past who are in a state of arrested development and never left your hometown.
What follows are a series of rocky chapters of their friendship spanning major life events and the smaller ones in between. The odd-couple-who-is-meant-for-each other relationship finds balance in Mike’s selfishness and Kyle’s selflessness, which turns just about every occasion bittersweet. Gayle Rankin (GLOW) perfectly plays Marissa, the third piece of their “love” triangle. She is both the voice of reason Kyle desperately needs while also the disruption to his relationships – both with his family and Mike – that he struggles to get a handle on. Their complicated entanglement constantly keeps you guessing throughout, always unsure where it will lead next. There are moments of drama, humor, and awkwardness that combine to feel relatively natural, no matter how outrageous. The casting of George Wendt and Talia Balsam as Kyle’s well-intentioned yet clueless parents only adds to the mix.
The reason this all works so well is the immediacy of cinematographer Zach Kuperstein‘s work which immerses us right into the most intimate of settings. At times we are voyeurs watching through the window and at others his camerawork has us moving around through the characters’ lives like a member of the family. While the film is dialogue-heavy we learn so much more about Kyle and Mike through a kind of cinematic osmosis.
The roaming camera exposes numerous family members as they go in and out of frame as well as personal living spaces while rarely putting anyone front and center. It allows the viewer to take it all in, learning a great deal about the characters without force-feeding. It is ambitious filmmaking without ever feeling like it, because you quickly forget you are watching extended shots. The long-shot can be a little suffocating at times since the film’s subject matter is rarely cheery. Once in the scene, there are no breaks for us to catch our breath. It is almost too realistic… which makes it all even that more effective. Luckily, there are some surreal musical interludes, chapter breaks, and the least erotic dance you’ll probably ever see to help add levity along with your visit.
My recommendation is to sit back and enjoy the film, then revisit it and look at the craftiness at play. The film takes us across an array of settings: a wedding, a funeral, a ski lift, and Kyle’s parents’ basement to name a few. The logistics of blocking and framing each of the lengthy scenes is tough enough accomplishment alone. To pull off the development of interesting characters, memorable performances, and so many emotions, all at the same time – it really is quite impressive. Hats off to Covino, Marvin and Kuperstein. It also feels like one of those films that would have been a blast to be on set for both energies and to watch this team of geniuses at work.
Definitely hunt down The Climb. What looks like commonplace is elevated by Covino and Marvin, into one of the most pleasant and original surprises of the year. It begs to ask the question, just how much more can we mine out of tired premises with some fresh creative minds at the helm? If these two are taking on the challenge, I will gladly watch and find out.