Thanksgiving plays a small role in “The Vicious Kind” (2009). There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turkey dinner, and one character sleeps through the holiday. But the fall Connecticut setting is prevalent and it’s ultimately a sweet-and-sour indie film about family, making it a good (if not always good-natured) under-the-radar Turkey Day pick.
Initially, it appears the “vicious kind” of the title are all women, as per the skewed viewpoint of Adam Scott’s construction worker Caleb Sinclaire, the recent victim of a surprise breakup. Or maybe it’s ironically Caleb himself, as he treats an innocent waitress with remarkable rudeness. But eventually writer-director Lee Toland Krieger’s calling-card film is about bad behavior that can come from not just a (supposedly) seasoned jerk like Caleb, but from anyone.
It’s also about how we perceive people, and how we are the victims of our individual narrow lens, plus our knack for self-deception. A telling scene serves as “The Vicious Kind’s” thematic statement: Caleb tries to strike up conversation with a $50 prostitute. That’s not part of the bargain – psychoanalysis costs a lot more, and it seems Caleb can’t afford a pack of cigarettes — but he does voice a universal truism: We often fall in love with the idea of a person more so than the actual person.
Scott, later to become a household name via “Parks and Recreation,” gradually gets under a viewer’s skin as the bizarre, sleep-deprived and rude – yet decent and loving — Caleb. Brittany Snow (“American Dreams”) and J.K. Simmons (“Law & Order”) use “The Vicious Kind” to break free of their trademark roles and add variety to their resumes.
Snow is Emma, with striking black hair and blue eyes (like the girl who broke Caleb’s heart, as we see in flashbacks). She’s the new college girlfriend of Caleb’s younger brother Peter (Alex Frost). Is she going to break Peter’s heart, as Caleb fears? It’s hard to argue that she doesn’t look the part of a heartbreaker, but whether she’s an intentional heartbreaker is a whole ’nother matter.
This glowing couple is spending Thanksgiving break with Peter and Caleb’s dad Donald (Simmons). We know from “L&O” and the “Spider-Man” pictures that Simmons can be a frame-filling presence, but here he gets to play layers, a springboard for a decade of deeper roles. Donald is a little creepy around his son’s girlfriend, and a little quick to grab a shotgun.
But Donald, Peter and Caleb come off as a very real – if decidedly dysfunctional – family. Opening up the film is Vittorio Brahm in a nice turn as J.T., the slightly mentally challenged co-worker and drinking buddy of Caleb. His story reveals that family dysfunction can be even worse than the Sinclaires’.
Krieger, who would later work on several TV series including “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” doesn’t do anything flashy with his direction. At times, the limited budget shows (we hear a horn rather than seeing a train), but the New England setting is brisk and the Sinclaire house is strikingly lived-in. Radical Face’s “Welcome Home” makes an effective appearance, even though it’s on an absurd number of soundtracks.
The relationships get so twisted and tangled that a sweeping happy ending is impossible, but Krieger gives honest conclusions to every thread. They are too honest for this to become a holiday classic, and it is too grim and explicit for family viewing, but “The Vicious Kind” hits what it’s aiming for.