A comedy of parallel social universes, Gary Burns‘ 1997 debut Kitchen Party opens on an elegant visual joke whose punch-line kicks in as the story unfolds. The opening shots describe the progress of a car through a suburban neighborhood, a series of sharp, uncertain turns filmed through the back windshield. Opening credits then unfurl across an overhead, time-lapsed view of a living room being vacuumed and straightened so that everything is just so. The joke is that the scruffy kids behind the wheel of the car are on a figurative collision course with the perfectly manicured living environment; Kitchen Party takes its title from the idea that its cast of teenaged revelers must navigate that well-worn comedy axiom, the end-of-college-house party, without actually using the majority of the house.
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The film is divided (unevenly) into two spaces. There’s the “kitchen party,” where Scott (Scott Speedman) tries to balance his anxiety about the possible trashing of his family’s abode against the increasing distance of his girlfriend Tammy (Laura Harris) — who, in an act of betrayal that’s either deeply oblivious or calculated in proportion to her boyfriend’s neat-freak distraction, absconds with his sullen older brother Steve (Jason Wiles). And, somewhere not too far away, there’s the dinner party being attended by Scott’s parents (Gillian Barber and Kevin McNulty), where the discussion inevitably turns to the question of whether the kids are alright.
The gatherings of the adolescents and the adults are both marked by immaturity and insecurity, though Burns is more interested (and adept) when it comes to the younger characters. If the script’s equivalences are too tidy, the filmmaking permits an endearing unruliness: credit editors Mark Lemmon and Reg Harkema (who would become a significant director in his own right) for consistently finding the right spiky takes. The young actors all do well with Burns’ pungent dialogue, and it’s funny to see Speedman (later cast as a toussle-haired rebel heartthrob in Felicity) playing a cowed good-son type. Scott’s worries about stray imprints on his mother’s specially vacuumed rug speak to priorities thrown dangerously out of whack by grown-up hang-ups, and, as such, echo Alan Ruck’s worries about his dad’s car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (as does a fitfully amusing subplot featuring a refurbished automobile and a nagging stuck gas pedal).
There are other cinematic reference points for Kitchen Party — from The Exterminating Angel to Risky Business — but its motif of entrapment also anticipates Burns’ later work, especially the terrific Waydowntown (2000), about a group of friends who make a bet about who can dwell the longest in a Calgary office complex without ever going outside. Waydowntown’s anodyne textures and caffeinated rhythms positioned Burns as Canada’s great indie-hope, a mantle he grasped at rather transparently with 2003’s A Problem With Fear. This self-consciously idiosyncratic sci-fi comedy, about a multi-phobic young man weathering a freakish “fear storm,” felt more like a niche-carving gesture than a fully realized work. Much better was Burns’ Radiant City (2006), co-directed by journalist Jim Brown, which tackled urban sprawl via a sort of hybrid comedy-documentary discourse (its treatise on “fakeness” is underpinned by a very artful sort of fakery). Radiant City is Burns’ most mature film to date, but it also evokes his rookie effort: the stifled teen survivors Kitchen Party would probably have something to say about the latter film’s dissection of cookie-cutter ennui. Or at least volunteer to spill their beers on the floor in solidarity.
Adam Nayman is a film critic for Eye Weekly in Toronto. He is also a regular contributor to Cinema Scope.