Q: What do you call a hundred “quirky” indie comedies at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start.
So why bother with Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake, in which quirk is the very marrow of its low-budget bones? Because sometimes, handled right, quirks work.
The story centers around a lost poodle, the owner-to-owner wanderings of an electric car, and preparations for a small-town demolition derby. The narrator is a 10-year-old girl named Turkeylegs (Katy Haywood)—I know, I know, stay with me—who fills in the blanks when Donald Turnupseed (Will Oldham) goes looking for said poodle in said car and disappears, leaving pregnant girlfriend Sadie (Sheila Scullin) in the proverbial lurch. Donald’s dad (Ken Byrnes) keeps looking for his car, Ms. Firecracker (Kathleen Kennedy) keeps looking for her dog, Turkeylegs keeps looking for Donald, and Sadie prepares to drive in the derby, in defiance of her “Guatemalan” derby-champ father Ivan (Ivan Dimitrov) and while fielding the attentions of new suitor Stool (Rich Schreiber).
Turnupseed, demolition derbies, old ladies with lost poodles—this is the sort of self-conscious oddity that usually leaves a bad taste. But The Guatemalan Handshake works, at least intermittently, because writer/director Todd Rohal treats his quirky characters as characters. Stool may be a bundle of bizarre tics and poor grooming choices but he is also sincere. Sadie may display little reaction to Donald’s departure, but her firm handling of Stool makes clear she’s no dullard rural roundheel. Almost every performance channels a Lynch-ian weird energy, and Rohal comes up with striking camerawork to match, whether chasing electricity down rural power lines or resting on the incongruous beauty of a little blonde girl with a black handlebar mustache.