Saturday, January 20, 2018

Slamdance ’18: Rock Steady Row

It is like The Road Warrior, but with bikes and paddles. The good news is if you survive four years and keep your grades up, you will leave Rock Steady University with a college degree, but that is a big “if.” The key to survival owning a bike. That allows you to have a puncher’s chance of pedaling through the crime-infested campus unmolested. As usual, this new Freshman has his bike stolen on his first day, but he is more resourceful than the typical victims in Trevor Stevens’ Rock Steady Row, which screens as part of this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

As the leader of the Kappa Brutus Omega frat, stealing bikes is Andrew Palmer’s thing. The Kappas control the bike trade on-campus, thanks to their regular kickbacks to the corrupt Dean of students. Their only rivals are The High Society, an upper-crust house led by the elitist Augustus Washington III.

Like Yojimbo, the Freshman will try to play the frats off each other, in hopes of breaking their hold on power and recovering his bike. He really liked that bike. Fortunately, his roommate Piper (Rock Steady is extremely coed) is an aspiring campus journalist, who can give him insight into how the crooked system works. She also has some embarrassing history with Palmer.

It is impossible to easily convey the tone of RSR. It is not really retro in the style of The Turbo Kid, despite all the Huffys and the Freshman’s mysterious old school Walkman. Nor is it a horror film, like Motorrad, but together those three films would be quite a bike-centric triple feature. It is nowhere near as mean-spirited as Hobo with a Shotgun either, but the world of Rock Steady functions in a very similar manner, with respect to logic and the causal acceptance of violence.

It is similarly tricky to pin down the Freshman. He is not exactly a hardnose or a slacker or sad sack or a sociopathic drifter, but he has elements of them all. Whatever that note is, Heston Horwin manages to hit it. Diamond White is terrific as the reasonably proactive Piper, while Logan Huffman is appropriately Skeet Ulrich-esque as the oily, psychotic Palmer. Plus, Isaac Alisma and the great Larry Miller really ham it up as Washington and the Dean, respectively.

I don’t know about you, but right now, I’m glad I went to a Lutheran school. There are no safe spaces at Rock Steady, that’s for sure, but it is what we’ve been asking for, by putting the barbarians in charge of higher education. Regardless, you won’t find any ideologically tinged satire in RSR. It is all about chaos, anarchy, and bikes. Despite their gleeful mania, Stevens and screenwriter Bomani Story create a weirdly self-contained and dramatically functional world. Enthusiastically recommended for cult movie fans, Rock Steady Row screens again this Monday (1/22), as part of the 2018 Slamdance Film Festival.