AFF Review: Harmony and Me

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Harmony and Me

It's a little strange that I'm writing a review for Harmony and Me immediately after reviewing (Untitled) -- both movies are about music, and use music to explain their characters' state of mind. Harmony and Me is more subtle and uses music in a more personal, straightforward way -- the characters are the focus.

Harmony and Me is the latest film from Austin writer/director Bob Byington (RSO [Registered Sex Offender]). Many of us in Austin have been waiting to see this locally shot film since its premiere at New Films/New Directors in New York last April. Byington was unhappy with the projection quality at AFF, and I hope to see it again someday in a setting that the director feels does justice to his film. However, I was still able to enjoy the film.

Harmony (Justin Rice) is unable to recover from a traumatic break-up. His girlfriend Jessica (Kristen Tucker) left and he doesn't know what to do with himself. He's a musician, but decides he wants to improve his piano-playing skills and starts taking lessons from an odd but helpful teacher (Jerm Pollet). He works in a server room with an unsympathetic crowd that seems to be in another universe, his friend Mean Man Mike (Alex Karpovsky) offers holistic medicine solutions while treating his own partner like dirt, and his brother is focused on his own upcoming wedding.

That feels like a totally inadequate description of this film. Harmony wants, to put it simply, harmony in his life, and you can't have that alone. He feels he needs to be with Jessica to achieve that. Other characters all seem discordant at first, but as the movie progresses, you can see where some of them fit in his life and some don't. Meanwhile, he's learning musically to separate his left side from his right. Life as a musical progression -- it's not the most action-packed story, but I was quickly involved in the characters and everything did fit together nicely.

Describing Harmony and Me as a musical allegory doesn't give you any idea of its quiet, quirky humor. Austin musician Bob Schneider has a hilarious role as a wedding singer. Justin Rice, who played the absent musician boyfriend in Alexander the Last, is "grieving" a lot -- but in a way that is more amusing than annoying. I love his "My heart was a snack" spiel. One-liners abound, but with a low-key, almost deadpan, delivery.

I don't usually read other reviews of a movie before I write mine, but my eye was caught by the opening lines of Roger Ebert's review of Harmony and Me: "Austin, Texas, has never looked more unlovely ... Harmony, the hero of this film ... never visits a part of town that doesn't look like an anonymous suburb."

The parts of Austin I recognized in the film include Town Lake Bridge, Progress Coffee, Tom's Tabouley, Big Top Candy Shop on S. Congress, Amy's Ice Creams on Burnet Road, a bench outside Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar (you can't tell it's near the theater unless you know the area well, admittedly), miscellaneous streets downtown and near the UT campus, and a bowling alley that I couldn't identify. I think this is funny because none of those locations are suburban Austin, and many are beloved to locals. Are we more suburban and anonymous-looking and less weird than we think?

Harmony and Me is inevitably being labeled as "mumblecore," since Byington and many of his cast/crew have been involved in other films also given that label. It reminded me more of Harold and Maude, with a main character staring pathetically at the world and wanting something different, unable and sometimes unwilling to fit in with what's expected of him. That sounds potentially dreary, but Byington has transformed what could have been a pathetic cliche into a subtle comedy.