Kurt Kuenne’s new film “Shuffle” sounds a lot like “Memento.” It’s shot in black and white and chronicles a man who starts experiencing his life out of order, but does not know why. The comparisons stop there, though. Where “Memento” focused on gimmicks, “Shuffle” delivers with cleverness and heart.
TJ Thyne (“Bones”) stars as Lovell Milo. The film begins with Lovell trying to make sense of his experience to a psychiatrist. Heavy-eyed and throwing back coffee, Lovell knows that if he falls asleep he will wake up in a different day in his life. Some days, Lovell is 8 years old, or 14, but some days he has not yet lived. What is causing this experience? What is he supposed to learn from it? Will it ever stop?
I had the pleasure to talking with Mr. Kuenne on the phone. Kuenne, whose last feature, the documentary “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father” also played at SLIFF and won the Audience Choice Award, decided to switch back to narrative features after directing a few shorts. One of those shorts, “Validation” starring TJ Thyne, has garnered a sort of cult status on YouTube where it has accumulated several million hits.
“Shuffle,” came from Kuenne’s earlier screenplay which was awarded a prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The project had to be shelved, however, because a similar project directed by Chris Columbus was slated to be released around the same time.
Kuenne, tired from traveling coast to coast with “Shuffle,” mentioned that “Shuffle” was inspired by films he grew up watching. He cited Spielberg as an influence and “E.T.” as his favorite film. He described “Shuffle,” though, as Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) meets “The Twilight Zone.”
That connection certainly explains the use of black-and-white in the film. It looks beautiful. Kuenne uses lighting and shadowing to make his film appear much more glossy than independent films with such a small budget might.
But the Capra influence was particularly appropriate. Kuenne’s film has a delightful sense of awe and wonder to it. It exists in a universe where there is order and meaning to everything, and you can find it if only you look hard enough. The world of “Shuffle” is not naive, simple and devoid of conflict, however. Without giving away too much of the plot, some of the complications that ultimately lead to tragedy are quite heartbreaking. Kuenne puts some of his characters through dark and dangerous times, but when they emerge they are fully realized people with a metanoia that is beautifully life-affirming.
It is worth noting that Kuenne served as writer, director, producer, editor and cinematographer on “Shuffle.” Oh, and he also composed the soundtrack. Yet, the efforts of this cinematic Renaissance Man never feel tired or insistent. “Shuffle” still feels like a complete work, the result of a singular vision, and I mean that in a good way.
Perhaps my only complaint about the film comes from my own philosophical cynicism. Watching “Shuffle,” I wished that everything was not so tidy in the end, that everything did not have meaning. I am willing to admit that this says more about me than it does about “Shuffle.” Kudos to the film for making me rethink my own worldview and assumptions about reality.
I cannot recommend “Shuffle” strongly enough. It plays at 6.30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Tivoli Theatre. Go and see it. If you miss it, put it on the Netflix queue. And watch out for this Mr. Kuenne. Seek out “Dear Zachary.” Kuenne is an assured and experienced filmmaker with a lot of heart, an inspiring trust in humanity, and a whole lot to tell us. Listen up.