Blog Post #119: My 'Phony' Review
Updated: Feb 14
A few weeks ago, my friend and former UCF film school classmate David Bush announced that his debut independent feature film was newly available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. I immediately made plans to watch it but this wouldn't be the first film of his I'd be seeing in the comfort of my living room.
In 2017, I streamed a Lifetime TV movie that Bush had directed and co-written, A Deadly Affair. It was an entertaining if formulaic whodunit that, at the very least, had me guessing who the dastardly villain was until the very end. After my viewing, I spoke with Bush over the phone and I was instantly reunited with the characteristic acuity and perceptiveness I'd observed at UCF. Coupled with an increasing awareness of Bush's practically peerless dedication to his craft as a screenwriter and published author, I expected a great deal from his debut indie... and I wasn't disappointed.
Phony is a riotous social satire about a fledgling filmmaker, Sam, who compels a philandering friend of his, David, to make a movie with him about the lies men and women tell each other in the online dating world. Sam and David begin their devious undertaking by scrutinizing women's dating profiles and then testing their theories about the value of truth by having David fashion bold lies for his own dating app profile. David's interactions with the resulting dates are then recorded on phones with their consent - more or less. Sam and David's partnership begins amicably enough but as their movie-making effort progresses, boundaries are questioned, lines are crossed and their alliance is tested. The involvement of the two men's love interests further complicate matters and Sam is soon left to finish "the movie" on his own.
I won't say whether the film is fiction or non-fiction, as the blurred distinction between the two is part of the charm of the film, but I must acknowledge the performances of the principal participants in the film. Sam is played by T.C. Matherne whose timid, diffident manner proves an intriguing contrast to the far more confident, enterprising David, played by Jeff Pearson. The women in the film are also a delight to watch as the dramedic madness unfolds. Lorna Street Dopson commands the screen in her role as David's unsparing partner and a particularly demanding actress. Shiree Nicholas Christopher equally elevates the proceedings with her turn as Sam's past flame and lawyer Ruby Robinson later on in the film.
Filming mainly in homes and bars with what seems like talent culled from an immediate professional network (Bush is based in the film production hub of Louisiana or "Hollywood South"), Phony is clearly a micro-budget film. But that's nothing to sneeze at in this era of untold corporate greed, excess and needless extravagance. Bush chooses to smartly and effectively throw all of the emphasis on his wickedly clever dialogue, the unpredictable unwinding of the film's plot, his actors' naturalistic performances and the surgically exact choreography of the phone-based camerawork throughout the film. It's a venerable approach that flies in the face of so much content regularly shoveled into our mediasphere by the eminent studio powers.
In 2018, I decided to film my own debut feature, For My Sister, on a phone. It was considered a bold choice but Bush did it before me with Phony (in fact, he was the inspiration for my doing so!). But the ubiquitous technological means employed here is only as effective as it is because of the doubtless rigor and discipline of Bush's writing process. At one point in the film, Sam states, "[A part of the movie] has to feel seamless, it has to be all one continuous piece." Well, that's exactly how I feel about the formal integrity of the entire film. It's a remarkably cohesive piece from top to toe and, even if it's not the first film to be shot on a phone, the cumulative effect feels totally fresh!
"Our whole lives we're groomed on fiction and movies and books," David posits. "No one actually wants to be with someone that's real," he admits during a scene early on in the film just before the two main characters agree to their joint venture in effrontery. It's a piece of dialogue that poses a serious social question worthy of great consideration. Thankfully, Phony more than lives up to the challenge with its highly comedic and highly meta exploration of such themes as honesty, romance, voyeurism, friendship and creative endeavor. As micro-budget indie features go, it's a stunning achievement!
Phony is now available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime Video here. If you watch it, please leave a review for the amazing cast and crew of the film. Indie filmmakers are always in need of such support!