Feature filmmaking is new terrain for aspiring creative Michael Angelo Covino. Yet, his directorial debut “The Climb” marks the bold beginning of a promising career, flexing surprisingly sharp sensibilities in style and direction.
Covino bookends “The Climb” with scenes of cycling. The opening and closing montages of “The Climb” encapsulate the film’s recurrent themes of journey, strain, growth and return. Covino penned the script with his real-life best friend Kyle Marvin, and the two respectively star in the film’s leading roles as Mike (Covino) and Kyle (Marvin), best friends from childhood weathering the present-day fiascos of being an adult.
The first scene breaks the ice with a jolting betrayal. Kyle, sweating and physically exhausted, peddles behind Mike on a contoured mountain trail, struggling to keep up with his lean, fit best friend’s pace. With Kyle lagging behind, Mike reveals that he slept with the other man’s fiance Ava, played in only one scene by Judith Godrèche. This devastating betrayal, however, is underscored by the comedy of their rapport.
Mike exhales in wry one-liners reminiscent of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch; the news knocks the wind out of an already breathless Kyle, and Marvin milks the character’s physical comedy in breathless threats to kick Mike’s butt.
“The Climb” approaches the buddy comedy genre (think: “Step Brothers,” “Wayne’s World,” “The Blues Brothers” and “Monsters, Inc.”) and attempts to steep the central male friendship in adulthood. Not to say that “The Climb” is a mature bromantic comedy, but the dramatic conflicts that clot Mike and Kyle’s relationship arise from particularly adult things: marriage, grief, affairs, substance abuse and sex, just to name a few. “The Climb” examines how one’s childhood friendships that continue into adulthood leave a fundamental impression on their identity.
Beyond the apparent thematic maturation, Covino revises the typically silly and light-hearted genre in the film’s sophisticated construction. “The Climb” spans several years, divided by stylized, numbered and uniquely named chapters. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein unspools Mike and Kyle’s friendship through unbroken shots captured by a stunningly stabilized camera. These drawn-out shots seamlessly stitch the story together with compelling, admirable ease.
The camera’s intricate choreography and coordination — winding through mountainous slopes or panning across windowed vignettes during a holiday celebration — kindle kinetic energy and infuse the narrative with realism and excitement.
While elevating its style, “The Climb” begins to tumble downhill when it wallows in Mike’s self-loathing. The camera focalizes Mike, the alpha male to Kyle’s beta. While their friendship’s erosions are indeed man-made, they’re almost exclusively Mike-made. Through the camera’s attunement to Mike’s remorse, “The Climb” attempts to stir sympathy for the man who cuckolds his best friend and spends most of the movie regretting while remaining utterly selfish. Witty lines and the camera’s dexterity distract from Mike’s toxicity, but it poisons the viewer’s ability to invest in the central friendship.
Covino and Marvin’s smart script is notably less clever in its depiction of female characters. The women in the film function akin to narrative quicksand; they are treacherous deterrents to Mike and Kyle’s happy ending. In the third chapter, Kyle’s female family members gab and gossip about Kyle’s new fiance, Marissa (Gayle Rankin) — a woman they exclude in covert, calculated exchanges.
Since women sneakily plot, men are helpless victims succumbing to their primitive desires for sex and escape. The latter of these flawed characterizations, however, is apparently deserving of redemption. Mike’s plea for Kyle’s forgiveness symbolizes the exoneration of male, heterosexual vices. Even finely tuned camerawork cannot distract from the faulty characterization of the film’s supporting characters.
The artistic drive of “The Climb” reaches its zenith in Covino’s pacing and Kuperstein’s cinematography. The camera traces a wide array of characters with laudable grace, yet the central characters lack emotional resonance, pushing the film’s enjoyment to a rocky low.