Walter starts off with a concentrated dose of Indie Quirk. While the opening credits appear we hear a chorus of ebullient yet slightly melancholy, whistling. Then, via first-person voice-over, we are introduced to a lone male protagonist with a past trauma who has a seriously wacky quirk. When we first see said protagonist he is positioned in the exact center of the frame, pillows on either side, a portrait of perfect Braffian symmetry. This lone protagonist, you won’t be surprised to learn if you are even dimly familiar with the Indie Quirk style guide, is an awkward, emotionally stunted loner named Walter (Andrew J. West in a limp-armed, hunched-back performance that reminded me of Jake Gyllenhaal) who lives with his mother (Virginia Madsen) and orders his life around a series of mundane routines. He scarcely knows any life outside of the commute between his mom’s house and the movie theater where he works as a ticket taker. At his place of work he contends with a douchey co-worker (Milo Ventimiglia), pines after a beautiful concession stand girl (Leven Rambin), and generally frustrates his weary boss (Jim Gaffigan).
Walter checks so many of the Indie Quirk boxes that for a time I thought the film might actually be a parody of the style. (The basis for this theory: a scene in which Walter and his love interest have a conversation in front of a poster for a movie called “Meet Cute”; a spoof of American Beauty’s famous bed-of-roses shot transposed to a bed of popcorn; the moment when Walter’s bully actually calls him “quirky.”) After a while it became clear that while the film may be aware of its own Indie Quirk contrivances, it is not really satirizing them. Rather, like Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices from earlier this year, Walter’s director Anna Mastro employs the stylistic aesthetics of Indie Quirk as an attempt to embody the POV of her main character as he breaks from reality. But where Satrapi’s film is pervasively weird, Walter is merely odd and, in the end, dissatisfying.
Walter’s “hook”—these Indie Quirk movies always seem to have a high-concept logline; perhaps because they must require so many meetings to secure financing and acting talent and all the rest, it helps to be able to explain a film’s premise in a couple sentences—is that Walter claims to be the son of God (or rather a son of God, since Walter is quick to inform us that he is not Jesus) and must judge every person he encounters as to whether they will end up in Heaven or Hell. Walter is fairly well adjusted to this responsibility until a ghost (Justin Kirk) keeps pestering him, demanding that Walter determine his fate. This hook is not played with a coy “Is this really happening?” air. It is clear from pretty early on that Walter is dealing with some serious mental issues, as is his mother who, in one of the film’s best and oddest touches, constantly fixates on making Walter eggs.
Walter seeks out a psychiatrist and ends up across the desk from Dr. Corman (William H. Macy, in a delightful turn), who treats Walter with an amusingly cocky bemusement. Corman bluntly poses questions like “What kind of crazy are you?” These scenes with Dr. Corman are the film’s best, thanks in no small part to Macy’s performance, and point toward the sort of lightly absurdist comedy Walter could have been. Instead the film ends up being something of a drag, treating Walter’s mental issues far too seriously and providing a lot of pat pop-psychological overexplanations in the movie’s final third. Walter does have its moments, thanks largely to its exceptional cast, all of whom ground the film in a certain level of reality that the direction does not. Paul Shoulberg’s screenplay has the seeds of a potentially funny and even disorienting absurdist comedy, but Mastro’s direction, while assured, largely sidesteps the laughs, and ultimately has the effect of placing everything into a whimsical little box.
In its final moments, Walter is a paean to bland normalcy, suggesting there’s nothing better in life than getting a job at a bank (as Walter’s mother does) and saying “Hey” to a pretty girl without tripping over yourself. Perhaps it’s fitting that a film which hews so closely to the conventions of a certain type of filmmaking would end up being an ode to conformity.