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Movie Review: Beneath Contempt

By Mike Everleth ⋅ May 8, 2011

Movie poster featuring a teenage boy being walked through prison

Beneath Contempt, written and directed by Benjamin Brewer, opens with a tragic car crash, then chronicles a slow, but engrossing, moral collision.

After staying out all night drinking and partying, Sean Beckett (Colin Janson) lights up his pipe for one last toke on the way home and ends up crashing his car, killing his three passengers, but leaving him alive. Flash forward four years later and Sean is released from prison with time off for good behavior.

Before the accident, we don’t know much about Sean. The film’s early scenes focus more on Mason Barnes (Mark Nimar), one of Sean’s victims. Mason is a nice, good kid who is comfortable having long talks with his mother. His last moments on Earth are spent happily in the backseat of Sean’s car, joking around with a girl.

Post-prison, the film tracks two parallel storylines. First is Sean’s attempt to acclimate himself back into society. His mom (Melanie May) hooks him up with a job working for his uncle (Eric Eastman) installing home theater systems. But, being behind bars for four of his most important developmental years hasn’t left him with much competent working skills. He sincerely tries, though.

However, an early encounter with a sympathetic waitress lets us know that Sean really isn’t going to have an easy time as a free man. The oppressive nature of small-town living where everybody knows everybody else’s business is bound to catch up with him.

The second storyline involves Mason’s surviving, still grieving family: His mom Juna (Sarah Newhouse), older brother Matthew (Mike Bash) and younger sister Jaime (Abby Austin). Matthew is still so devastated by his loss that he sends an audio tape to Sean’s parole board hearing to argue against his release.

Of course, these two storylines will have to eventually intersect, but Brewer is in no hurry to get to that point. His script and directorial pacing is very measured, letting us get close to these characters to see how this tragic event has deeply affected both sides: The anger in the Barnes family, the remorsefulness of the Beckett family and the sadness in both.

What’s most interesting about the film is the way the car accident is central to every scene, yet it’s an event that is barely mentioned or referred to after it happens. Brewer isn’t here to hammer his audience with cheap and obvious emotional posturing, like the way a typical TV movie might handle the same subject. The filmmaker has a much more subtle hand. In fact, this is a much more affecting film than might be expected since Brewer lets the emotional subtext speak the loudest in each scene.

However, it is the Barnes’ story that is the much more compelling half of the film. In quiet ways we see how Juna has pretty much checked out of her life, just going through the motions of everyday living. And since her husband died previous to the film’s actions, Matthew has had to step up and become the de facto parent to Jaime. The siblings’ relationship is the most complex and developed, particularly because they never speak about Mason to each other, but we understand his absence has strengthened their familial bond.

In Sean’s case, the film really lets us see how becoming an unintentional murderer weighs heavily on his conscious, making him a sympathetic character that he does have remorse. However, there’s no true sense that comes across that he actually spent time in prison. Janson’s performance and Brewer’s direction perfectly captures Sean’s unsteadiness adjusting to life again, but there’s a certain hardness lacking in his demeanor that one assumes he would have had to have developed to survive behind bars.

When the film at last has its storylines cross, Brewer lets it happen in a forthright way, i.e. the subtext to the characters’ actions that we’ve come to understand is finally turned into action. Some characters behave in ways we might expect and others not so much, but all of their actions come across as genuine and arising out of their true personalities.

Although Brewer doesn’t lay it out explicitly, Beneath Contempt is about forgiveness: The ability and need to give and accept it. Although this is the filmmaker’s first feature-length movie, it’s a refreshingly rich and mature work, full of depth and sincere emotion.