The self-destructive singer-songwriter in I am Not a Hipster, Brook (Dominic Bogart), is not a hipster, but finds himself unfortunately surrounded by them. These young artists and wannabe-artists gather in strange, awkward social circles, their shared existence a continuous stream of cooler-than-thou shibboleths. Brook, deemed an iconic fixture in the indie-rock world, is as quick to shrug off the fame as he is the idea that these people who gravitate towards him are genuinely special in their own idiosyncrasies, or that they’re as talented or true to their work as he is.
But Hipster is not especially about hipsterdom (whatever that actually means). A San Diego subculture forms the film’s social backdrop in which Brook finds himself wedged—represented as equally suffocating and specious—as he tries to wrestle with larger personal issues. His mother has passed away. He’s not on the greatest terms with his father, a dynamic that’s tested when the old man and Brook’s sisters arrive so that they can scatter their mother’s ashes in the ocean.
There’s not much of a narrative here—more a slow, reassured build-up to the oceanside eulogy where the family men make peace—and in certain respects the film is not too different from the same inertia of Inside Llewyn Davis. The two protagonists definitely share their number of characteristics, soulful singing-guitar-playing notwithstanding. Yes, Brook is a talented musician. He’s appreciated here, almost untouchable, unlike Llewyn. Consistently throughout Hipster, characters shower Brook with praise, but he responds coldly and caustically to it. Like Llewyn, he’s in a near-constant choleric state, which is exacerbated by the daily frustrations of his underpaying profession.
The two films even share the same narrative structure with their intro and outro scenes: a musical performance, about to be botched. At the beginning of the film, Brook loses the musical and emotional momentum to keep playing. He deserts the stage while his confused back-up players continue. Close-ups of his face show him vomiting in the bathroom. These are all in the opening minutes of the film, an abrasive narrative kickoff that forces the viewer to question whether or not they will find Brook a sympathetic character.
As with Inside, that question lingers on the viewer’s mind as Hipster tracks Brook’s astringent treatment of everyone around him. He seems unaware that his dourness is patiently tolerated by the important people in his life. The trio of happy-go-lucky sisters (Tammy Minoff, Lauren Coleman, Kandis Erickson) who leave constant reminders about their impending arrival on his voicemail (to be ignored by the spacey Brook, too busy wearing headphones to record music) are barely surprised or distressed when they arrive to find him disheveled and his apartment more of a mess than even himself. The siblings’ dynamic is a loving, carefree one; the sisters know how to make him smile, how to get him out of his funk. They share a rare bond that he, wisely, doesn’t take for granted: the mutual love for their deceased mother, which is beautifully represented in scenes enacting old sibling rituals (making popcorn) and wistful watching of old home videos that feature Mom.
Brook’s best friend and “sorta manager” Clarke (Alvaro Orlando) is equally loving, even if he is a bit of an idiot. (We first meet this character in voiceover on the phone as he tells his hungover friend that he loves him, after reminding Brook about an upcoming radio interview.) Earnest and eager to cheer up Brook, Clarke is almost too-easily forgiving when Brook has a drunken tirade during Clarke’s art show, sabotaging both the party mood and the art. That tension between art and the silly posturing Brook sees as representing the bulk of his peers’ work is something the film simmers throughout; it comes to a head when Brook refuses to acknowledge Clarke’s work as art. “That’s the kind of empty, thoughtless shit that’s infesting the world and making it impossible to find anything that isn’t a complete waste of time,” he drunkenly sneers at his only friend. The film doesn’t seem to be completely backing Brook on this idea—his unlikable misanthropy exposes his self-seriousness, and the film wisely criticizes its protagonist for his ignorance of his narcissism.
Hipster is interested in more than just posturing and authenticity, and Brook seems to become increasingly aware that in his grief he may have become too self-absorbed. While watching the footage of a Japanese tsunami wipe out a town, he melts down. The film recognizes that navel-gazing comes in all forms, hipsters and non-hipsters alike. At least Brook has the capacity to recognize it.
Hipster would not be as compelling or touching if the music didn’t match the filmmaking. The original music crafted specifically for this film (by Joel P West) is so spirited and earnest that it seamlessly offers a melodic and spontaneous chasm through which the viewer can finally see a glimmer of Brook’s ardor, soul and humanity. Hipster is not interested in siding with Brook’s fuck-you assessment of contemporary art. Rather, it remains content to show us what true art can look like, and let us bask in its beauty.