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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Sword of Trust’: small but effective comedy

Lynn Shelton's film "Sword of Trust" opened a week ago at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is a review of that film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Some movies depend on intricate plots. Other opt for imaginative plot concepts. Still others make plot fully secondary to action.

It’s clear what kind of filmmaker Lynn Shelton is. The Seattle-based writer-director of such films as “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” typically follows a simple outline: She comes up with a novel concept and then depends on dialogue delivered by talented actors to create a satisfying mood.

“Humpday,” which was released in 2009, is a case in point. Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard play longtime buddies, straight guys who – on a mutual dare – decide to make a gay porn film … starring themselves.

Shelton’s new film "Sword of Trust," which is playing at the Magic Lantern Theater, is only mildly less offbeat: It involves a sword that, some people actually believe, proves that the South won the Civil War.

The sword in question belonged to the late 98-year-old grandfather of Cynthia (played by Jillian Bell) and is the only thing, upon his passing, that he left her to inherit. Along with her life partner Mary (played by Michaela Watkins), Cynthia discovers the sword’s alleged back story and attempts to find a way to profit from it.

Which is how she ends up in a pawn shop owned by Mel (played by Marc Maron), who lowballs Cynthia – as some pawn-shop owners are wont to do – until his slacker assistant Nathaniel (played by Jon Bass) convinces him to change his mind. Nathaniel, you see, likes exploring Internet conspiracy sites, and he knows that some people think such artifacts as Cynthia’s sword are genuine – and will pay a lot of money to purchase them.

Which is how the four become a reluctant team, agreeing to share a potential 40-thousand-dollar payday – and how, to collect, they end up riding for hours, in the back of a windowless truck driven by a suspicious character, to an unknown destination. You know, as ordinary people are wont to do.

Ridiculous, right? And in the wrong hands, such a concept would end up being merely a simple farce.

But Shelton, as all her work has shown, has a sensitive side. Her characters are both well and insightfully drawn, from the loving way that Cynthia and Mary communicate to Mel’s back story involving his long, drawn-out and frustrated love affair with a damaged woman named Deirdre (played by Shelton herself).

In fact, one of Shelton’s main strengths is her ability to find the right cast. Both Maron and Watkins boast stand-up-comedy chops, Maron being the host of the popular podcast “WTF with Marc Maron” and Watkins being a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member.

Maron, in particular, is so natural as Mel that it’s hard to believe he’s acting. In arguably the movie’s best scene, Maron delivers a long dialogue – addressing the other three in the back of the moving truck, no less – that explains how he ended up evolving from a would-be New York City musician to a Birmingham, Alabama, pawn broker.

The scene is an especially poignant moment in a typical Lynn Shelton film: one of small but mostly effective comic proportions.