A Jewish wedding forms the opening frame of indie film-maker Todd Solondz’s film, Dark Horse. Guests are seen dancing to the sound of loud music pumping, all with the exception of Abe (Jordan Gelber) and Miranda (Selma Blair), who are sitting awkwardly next to each other at a table, barely communicating.
Solondz’s latest offering of suburban angst is set in secular Jewish New Jersey —a familiar milieu for the director. It depicts Abe, an infantalised tubby man in his mid-30s who lives at home with his parents (played by Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken). Abe clings to his youth; his bedroom is an adolescent shrine, still adorned with a collection of action figures. He works for his father, a real-estate developer, but shows little skill or interest in the business.
Abe craves love but is far from lovable. Soon after meeting her, he clumsily proposes to Miranda, a depressive, heavily medicated aspiring writer. Abe sees himself as the dark horse of the film’s title. He believes that he is one of life’s secret winners, whose surprise comeback victory will act as revenge against all those who ever doubted him.
Solondz is renowned as one of America’s controversial writer-directors and is no stranger to addressing challenging subject matters with his darkly funny stories of alienation, family dysfunction and suburban anguish. He is perhaps best known for 1998’s Happiness, which caused considerable outrage for broaching the subject of paedophilia.
Speaking on the phone from Chicago, he explains in his slightly high, halting voice why he wrote Dark Horse. “I knew I had to write something low budget,” he says, “and I approached it really as a boy-meets-girl movie. The short answer, I suppose you could say, is that it is a kind of alternative to the man-child movies that are very popular.”
He is referring to films like Judd Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but adds that Abe is “something of a tragic, real-life version” of the character of George Constanza in the sitcom Seinfeld. “Often the perception of the man-child is someone cute and cuddly and I just wanted to get it from another angle. I didn’t want to sentimentalise it.”
It is unusual for a Solondz film to be described as tame, which is how some audiences and critics have responded. It is not a description he agrees with. “It’s beside the point whether people think it’s tame or adventurous. I’m happy with the film, but I don’t think the word ‘tame’ would come to mind,” he says.
As with all of Solondz’s work to date, the film’s location is a place he knows well. “I’m shaped and informed by New Jersey. It’s the world that I grew up in,” he says. “If I’d been brought up in New York, I’d have a different set of films.”
He acknowledges that Dark Horse is “very challenging for an audience in many ways. Abe presents as a character who is abrasive and off-putting and someone, I think, we don’t want to have dinner with, someone that we would rather dismiss as not worthy of our attention”.
What interests Solondz is testing the limits of our sympathy towards Abe. The character is seen as a loser. At one point, his mother tells him: “Everyone knows Richard [Abe’s doctor brother] is the success and you’re the failure”. So is the film questioning society’s judgment of winners and losers? “We do live in a certain kind of world where failure is he greatest stigma — it’s a kind of taboo,” responds Solondz.
Where should blame, if any, be apportioned? Is it the fault of society, family? Solondz says that he is not much of a finger-pointer. “I present a condition; one that I suppose is a kind of pathology. Certainly living at home in your 20s is understandable — it is so expensive to get a financial footing in the world — and even into the 30s. But there’s a certain point when it becomes something of a pathology.” Solondz does not seek to explain it — instead, he says, he presents a reality that he recognises.
Jewishness pervades the film while not being central to the story. “To be honest I didn’t really think about it much, says the director. “It’s a Jewish family; they are secular Jews. I don’t advertise their Jewishness, I take it for granted that they are.”
Aside from the first scene, there are several Jewish references: Abe makes a comment about kabbalah; he wears a T-shirt with the emblem “Matzo Baller” on it. There is also a poster of Israel in Abe’s parent’s hall. “I didn’t want to imply a certain facile kind of critique of their politics but I felt, yes, it would be reasonable to think that they would have such a poster,” says Solondz.
Ultimately, he insists that whatever the audience’s reacton to Abe, he has nothing but warm feelings for him. “If I didn’t love Abe, I certainly wouldn’t have troubled myself to make the movie, even if I don’t make him so lovable.”