Written and directed by David James Gustafson, co-written by Jacob Royce Gustafson, best friends Cliff and Otis plan to get rich quick by stealing from some of the most dangerous foes in the business: drug dealers. Going against the plan, the two spend the night partying, allowing the audience to see that, in a certain light, the “bad guys” weren’t really all that bad to begin with. Starring: Tyler Roy Roberts, Kennedy Stinson, Sam Olive, Erik Nash, Mason Turnage, Ben Buehler and Bo Turnage.
One of the surprising elements which is clear right from the beginning is the sincerity brought by Carl Billington’s cinematography. It’s typical with films such as this to lean into a more comedy-centric, bizarre or loud aesthetic whereas with High Note Billington and David James Gustafson keep things grounded. It works well, blending with the style of writing to create the sprawling evening, unfolding as it moves forward. Although while it does capture a natural atmosphere, at the same time there is a larger energy or momentum missing. The pacing is somewhat slow, the runtime is a little lengthy and until its finale, it plays things with a similar tone throughout. It does mean that the last minute switch in energies, effects and weight is a tricky transition to pull off and doesn’t entirely work; in a thematic sense yes but the gravity and violence of it don’t quite hit as hard as they should.
There are similar stumbling blocks with the story, as its pieces are well chosen but the way that they’re put together doesn’t feel the most effective. At its foundation, surrounding one slowly spiralling evening is a classic choice, then adding backstories to develop how each of the characters arrived at that moment gives nice context on how they relate to one another. Using a non-linear timeline to explore past and present simultaneously is again a familiar choice that works to reveal the story at a more gradual pace. However, it’s a little too gradual and needs an injection of variety, comedy or surprise to drive it forward, although adding the musical touch does embrace that friendly, open atmosphere.
As Otis and Cliff, respectively, Sam Olive and Erik Nash take a slight lead but there’s no denying that High Note is an ensemble piece. Olive and Nash provide the centre to bring everyone together but they all have something to add to the mix, no matter the size of the role. Tyler Roy Roberts brings a lot of generosity and honesty, enveloping Cliff and Otis into their group. Kennedy Stinson has a few cards up her sleeve, as well as a lovely singing voice and beyond calm demeanour. They all have a convincing connection and again that works to the natural feel of the film.
High Note is a great concept that has the right pieces but can’t quite find the ultimate fit. There’s a strong ensemble at work and it’s shot well, with a good story but its dragging its heels slightly and missing out on a forward momentum. It moves mostly with the same tone and doesn’t add enough variety or up the stakes to prepare itself for its finale and more effectively fill out the runtime. It’s a valiant effort for a debut feature from David James Gustafson, who then followed up with Beyond the Shadows.