Adapting challenging novels, especially for first-time filmmakers, is a big ask. Now, interestingly, it also perhaps can be a fit, since first-timers are willing to swing for the fences. So, for actors/partners Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe, the challenge was probably part of the appeal. As such, Downtown Owl is content to be odd and shaggy, which ends up part of its charm. Playing at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival, it’s a lower key movie than you might expect, but good enough to deserve not being lost in the shuffle.
Downtown Owl is a hyper literate take on Chuck Klosterman‘s novel of the same name. In keeping much of the author’s cadence and style, it makes for an unusual flick. At the same time, it doesn’t feel exclusionary or meant only for acolytes of the author. It’s easy to get on its odd wavelength, and once you do, it becomes more compelling than you might expect.
Set during the 1980s in the fictional town of Owl, North Dakota, this is the story of several residents. There’s newcomer Julia Rabia (Rabe), who has moved from the comparatively hipster Milwaukee to teach english at the High School. Introduced by the Principal (Linklater), she slowly learns the complicated dynamics of the students, teachers, and townspeople on the whole. Julia bonds with an old-timer in Horace (Ed Harris), while being suspicious of a fellow teacher (Finn Wittrock) potentially involved with a student. She’s also infatuated with depressed rancher Vance Druid (Henry Golding), despite her being married.
We follow Julia as she interacts with Horace, her colleagues, and students like Eli (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Naomi (Vanessa Hudgens). It’s all a bit offbeat, though more or less run of the mill for a small town. Then, a storm comes and moves us in a new direction. It’s all very true to the book, so while familiarity with it isn’t required, it likely wouldn’t hurt, either.
The cast mostly fares well with the difficult langue of the novel. Lily Rabe is best in show, which is at least in part due to her being the audience surrogate. Rabe deserves more showcases like this. Unfortunately, and this could be miscasting as much as anything, Henry Golding falls very flat. He feels out of a different movie, frankly. On the other hand, Jack Dylan Grazer is clearly enjoying the dialogue, which helps make his character stand out a bit more than he otherwise would have. Ed Harris, Vanessa Hudgens, and Finn Wittrock are fine, if never running away with the film. Supporting players, in addition to Linklater, who more or less cameos, include August Blanco Rosenstein, Emma Halleen, Arden Michalec, and more.
Co-directors Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe (with the former penning the adaptation) clearly have affection for Klosterman and the writer’s arguably best known work. It shows in how they don’t veer too far from the book, allowing its almost meandering nature to be part of its charm. Downtown Owl is a solid enough calling card to make you hope that they team up to make another film again soon. This could have wound up an absolute slog, but aside from a few of the casting choices not really working out, they’ve more or less cracked this book as a cinematic experience.
Downtown Owl is a pretty shaggy film, but it has a distinct enough personality that, whether you’re a Klosterman fan or not, there’s something to grab onto. If you do like the novelist, there should be an extra curiosity factor at play, This may not exactly be the movie you imagined, but as an above average Tribeca offering, it does more right than wrong, earning itself a recommendation.