Inspired by Italian neo-realism, British kitchen-sink dramas, the French New Wave and the kids he taught at Cambridge's The Group School, actor Jan Egleson turned writer-director in Billy, a technically crude but emotionally energetic film that blazed the trail for independent filmmaking in Greater Boston. It will be shown at the Brattle Theater on May 1, its first local showing since 2001.
1979. Written and directed by Jan Egleson. With Henry Tomaszewski, Paul Benedict, Genevieve Reale and David Clennon. Cinematography by D’Arcy Marsh.
TO PARAPHRASE AN OLD line of dialogue, there’s not a lot to Billy in the Lowlands, but what’s there is choice. In many ways, Jan Egleson’s homegrown movie began indie feature filmmaking in Greater Boston. The drama struggles to get going, but it ultimately kicks in and its offbeat coming-of-age tale definitely stays with you.
It takes a while to tune into Billy in the Lowlands’ particular rhythms. Egleson was a theater actor who’d occasionally been in movies—he’s the young soldier nervously selling guns in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and the guy whose bike is almost stolen here—and the style of his first movie is fairly primitive. Since there was no fiction filmmaking community in Boston at the time (the movie is actually a production of the famed Theater Company of Boston), Egleson’s small crew was just as inexperienced as he was. He cast the movie with a combination of professionals (Paul Benedict, David Clennon) and nonprofessionals, including teens from Cambridge’s The Group School for troubled youth, where Egleson volunteered as a drama instructor.
These kids’ anecdotes provided the inspiration for Egleson’s tale of Billy (Henry Tomaszewski), a trouble magnet who rests all his hopes on a reunion with his wayward father (Benedict). Billy’s bad luck and poor judgment are evident right away when he punches out at his foundry job in Quincy, and a joy-riding friend pulls up and asks him if he wants a ride home—in a stolen car. Billy, who we soon learn is on probation, gets in, the cops catch them and Billy ends up in juvenile prison in Billerica.
When Billy gets a call about his grandfather’s death and his father flying in for the funeral, he sneaks away from jail to find him, thinking his father will take him far away. Once he gets back to Cambridge and finds his friends from his housing project, who try to help him get to Lynn, where his father is supposed to be, the story takes on a real urgency and hits its stride. After the set-up, the last two-thirds of the movie take place over a 24-hour period.
Tomaszewski’s nervous energy suits the urgency that grips the title character (of course, the fact that Billy has handcuffs he wants to shed adds to the kid’s frenzy). The scenes with his friend Liz have a special spark, because Genevieve Reale, who plays her, has an unusually expressive face. Liz is sad-eyed, as if she knows more about what’s ahead than Billy does. We know Billy is deceiving himself about his dad because, at various times, he tells others his father is an artichoke farmer, a trucker and an oil-well driller. Sure enough, once Billy finds his father, he’s a drunk who doesn’t live in Billy’s land of dreams, California, but in Cleveland. There’s a humorous, skin-crawling awkwardness to most of their scenes together, but the movie ends with hope, not despair, as the encounter awakens Billy to the fact that no one is going to shape him up but him.
Of course, Billy’s lack of style is its style. It’s a back-to-basics, grass-roots movie all the way. I assume Egleson had permits to shoot some scenes in Harvard Square, or else the Cambridge police would have quickly shooed him away, but some of the little moments—like Billy panhandling for change—feel as if the director just pushed Tomaszewski into a real crowd and filmed what happened. There’s also a gritty beauty to shots like the one in which Billy, Liz and another friend ride towards the Paragon Park rollercoaster at dawn, while the sequence in Cardell’s, the atmospheric Harvard Square greasy spoon that used to be across from the Brattle Theater, is pure Edward Hopper. The prison scenes are also in Cambridge (at the then-new Middlesex courthouse), while the Lynn scenes were done mostly in Hull (after plans to shoot in Revere were thwarted by the demolition of the rollercoaster there). [That's Benedict and Tomaszewski in Hull in the photo above.]
One of my favorite touches, which I’m sure no one thought twice about at the time, is that Billy has a Sears basketball near the end of the movie. Now that Sears no longer makes things like basketballs, it just seems so right. Billy and his friends are more likely to have things or frequent places that are old than they are to be enjoying the latest things. They don’t live in a land of dreams.
►Locations: Cambridge; Quincy; Hull; Medford.
►Accents: All real, all the time. They ought to make Hollywood dialect coaches watch it.
►Local color: This one will definitely take you back, if you’re old enough to remember, to a less slick time: Paragon Park! Zayre! Cardell’s, Brigham’s and the antiquated wooden-slats escalator in “old” Harvard Square! And there’s a great view of the roster of stores at Fresh Pond Shopping Center, circa 1977.