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AFI Fest Review: CONGRATULATIONS!

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by on November 12, 2013

Police procedural shows and movies are probably the most prolific they’ve ever been, especially on television. In film, they’re often a chance for a gruff actor to play a cop with a case that finally brings him to the tipping point. If he doesn’t solve it, he’s going to break, and possibly already has. We know these stories so well that they might as well be etched onto our brains with some kind of brain-etching equipment. Filmmaker Mike Brune has clearly seen every one of these and decided to make his own, but do it as absurd and as earnest as they actually are. His film, Congratulations!, supposes a child has disappeared, but is still in the house somewhere; where do you put the missing child flyers?

We begin at a graduation party (the film’s title comes from a chalk message on the home’s brick wall), from which the third son of the Gray family has disappeared. Mrs. Gray (Rhoda Griffis) turned around for just a second and her son Paul was nowhere to be found. The police are called in, including grizzled veteran Detective Skok (John Curran) and his young partner Detective Houlihan (Adam Fristoe). They question the Grays very thoroughly (VERY thoroughly) and ultimately decide that Paul must be around the house somewhere. This happens all the time, you see; Skok’s worked missing children cases for a lot of years. They ultimately decide that 24 hour surveillance is needed and a crew of about a dozen officers move into the Grays’ home, begin helping with chores, and sit around for family meals. All perfectly normal, yes?

Well things get even more “normal” when Skok orders that 10,000 copies of the missing boy’s flyer be printed and all of them are posted inside the house or on the outside, and even the roof. You know, just in case anybody in the house knows anything. The police also stand in various rooms or on the patio outside and intermittently shout “Paul!,” on the off chance the boy should decide to come out. They also make Mrs. Gray relive the events of Paul’s disappearance exactly, so she goes step by step, action by action, word for word, what happened from the moment he wasn’t there anymore. The police watch her intently, even if it doesn’t seem to be telling them anything.

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At a certain point, the investigation appears to be going nowhere. All of the other officers are sent home, leaving only Skok to continue the search, undeterred. The chief (Jack McGee) comes over quite a lot to ask him why he doesn’t just retire and leave this kind of police work to younger men. Skok can’t give up. He just can’t. Even if it means becoming a permanent fixture in the Gray house…

I just found this movie so delightful and weird. I giggled like a moron the 30th time some gruff policeman yelled “Paul!” at the top of his lungs, or when Mrs. Gray was leaving 50 messages on the answering machine when the family takes a vacation. It’s hysterical. There’s also a convention wherein a computer program digitally ages a photo of Paul to show what he might look like now. Since he’s only been gone a couple of days, he looks exactly the same, but they still print a new photo out every day.

It’s things like this which make the film really stand out. The attention to detail and the upending of convention blends together so nicely that at a certain point, you just sort of feel like you’re watching a cop procedural, even if the procedure in this case is utterly ridiculous and the circumstances even more so. Both Curran and Griffis give stellar performances, played exactly as straight as they should be, but with a slight air of the insanity of the situation. Scenes of the cops doing whatever they’re doing in the house are cut with a shot of Mrs. Gray sobbing uncontrollably in the bathtub, bringing a necessary gravity to an otherwise very absurd situation.

Congratulations! currently has no distribution deal, but if you should get the chance to see it, I highly recommend it. It’s just as weird as you’d want and much more heartfelt than it has any right to be. Weirdly, you kind of hope Paul gets found, even if his disappearance makes no sense at all. It’s real to the characters, and that’s all that should matter to us.