This “Lessons From” column aims to spotlight low-budget films that filmmakers might find educational for the creation or development of their own projects.
Michigan-based filmmaker Joel Potrykus has made films that focus on young members of the American underclass, who live meandering, uncertain lives. Richard Linklater would label this archetype in the early 90s with his film, “Slacker.” Potrykus redefines this label in the case of his 2018 film, “Relaxer.” Abbie, Relaxer’s protagonist, is unemployed, with no desire to work or to do anything particularly meaningful with his life. Rather, Abbie is content to sit on his couch, playing video games until he dies. And that is what Potrykus portrays with Relaxer. One character, for 91 minutes, sitting on a couch playing Pac-Man.
In development for the film, Potrykus was inspired by Luis Buñuel 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel, in which a group of wealthy elites are unable to escape a room for reasons never fully explained. Potrykus’ film, set in 1999, opens with Abbie in the midst of a “challenge” given to him by his brother, Cam. Abbie, while gaming, attempts to drink a gallon of milk over a certain period of time. After he is unable to complete this challenge, Abbie pleads for one “final challenge” in order to prove himself. Cam accepts, and he challenges Abbie to conquer level 256 of Pac-Man. The catch (and here, the Buñuel influence) is that Abbie can not get up from the couch until he defeats the video game. The rest of the film follows Abbie’s attempts to stay exactly where he is, while trying to beat a video game level that, unbeknown to him, is impossible to beat.
With Relaxer, similar to his other films, Potrykus makes many wise decisions to ensure that his film is consistently engaging, and that the low-budget is not a distraction, but rather an advantage. Independent filmmakers would benefit from watching the film, and stealing from Potrykus’ many smart decisions.
One of such decisions was to make Relaxer a chamber piece. The entirety of the film takes place in the same room of the same apartment. In regards to the production, the use of one location most likely gave everything a sense of consistency, as each day the cast and crew could settle into a place that felt comfortable and familiar. There were almost certainly complications, as there are with any film production, but there was no need to race across town once one scene had been shot in order to begin setup for the next. In setting the film in one location, Potrykus was also able to cut back on costs, and ensure that no shooting permits, or anything else that might slow down the shooting process, would get in the way. According to an article with Eric Kohn of Indiewire, Relaxer’s apartment was actually built in the production designer’s parents’ garage. The advantage of this is that the filmmakers would only need to construct one set, while also (presumably) not needing to pay for use of the location.
Even though Relaxer unfolds in one location, the film never feels overlong. It’s certainly claustrophobic, but this works in favor of the film, helping to bring the audience closer to the headspace (and physical space) of Abbie. To ensure that the film does not feel plodding, Potrykus introduces supporting characters throughout that entertain and elevate Abbie’s ridiculous determination. In one particularly funny portion of the film, Abbie asks two pest control workers if he can stay in the apartment while it is being bug bombed. Shortly after, Abbie lifts his face mask, through the fumes, so that he can eat from a bologna sandwich. In these scenes between Abbie and other characters, the audience gets an idea of the lengths that Abbie will go to in order to complete his challenge. When these supporting characters are introduced, they also provide context for who Abbie is. Most of these characters make reference to Abbie’s relationship with his father, a thread that Potrykus carries through the entirety of the film, finally paying off at the end.
One of the film’s supporting characters, Dallas (portrayed hilariously by Andre Hyland) introduces a 2-liter soda prop into the film, which Abbie utilizes for the remainder of the runtime. The use of this object, and other “survival objects” throughout the film, show another of Potrykus’ smart decisions, which is to focus on the survival element of the film, as opposed to the gaming. Watching Abbie trying and failing to beat Pac-Man would grow tiresome. Instead, the audience watches Abbie’s efforts to acquire the essentials (food, water) that he needs to survive, so that he can continue his challenge.
Although it is a bit absurd to compare Relaxer to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, there is a commonality between both films, where the main character (and the camera) are trapped inside of one location, utilizing all physical objects in their vicinity to survive (in Bresson’s film, to escape). Abbie’s story takes place within the confines of an apartment. In A Man Escaped, a jail cell. Things are heard from outside of these rooms, but they are never shown, just as it would be for the characters who are actually in the situations. Late in the film, Potrykus implies a destructive (and therefore, expensive) event that happens outside of the apartment. Because we are sitting with Abbie on the couch, we are as curious as he is, while also unable to view what is actually happening in the outside world. In doing this, Potrykus not only creates suspense, but he also utilizes the film’s low-budget to imply an expensive set piece that does not actually need to be physically created.
A large portion of the film’s budget, according to Potrykus, came from a practical effect at the end of the film. Because Relaxer feels contained and inexpensive throughout, this moment comes as a surprise. The viewer is genuinely caught off guard, making this moment a thrill that leaves the audience with a high.
Relaxer depicts months in the life of a man condemned to his couch. He is shown in the same spot for an hour and half, but through the story elements and filmmaking prowess, Potrykus makes it dynamic.