Reviewed by Lauren Humphries-Brooks
Rainbow Time is now available on Netflix
The first half hour of Linas Phillips’s new film Rainbow Time is one of the most profoundly awkward slices of cinema I’ve ever sat through. Shonzi (Phillips), a mentally challenged man living with his father, comes into conflict with his younger brother Todd (Timm Sharp), when Todd brings his girlfriend Lindsay (Melanie Lynskey) home to meet the family. Shonzi and Todd share a close relationship in which Todd often has to play the big brother to Shonzi, resulting in the crossing of familial and sexual boundaries when Lindsay is added to the mix. As Shonzi presses his brother into allowing him to participate in their relationship, tension develops between Todd and Lindsay, who have very different attitudes in regards to the way Shonzi should be treated.
The first half hour introduces the characters and their awkward, borderline inappropriate interactions. Initially, Rainbow Time feels superficial, uncomfortable, as though we are about to be subjected to a story about a mentally challenged man and how funny and uncomfortable he is. But as the film develops and the characters become more multi-faceted, a complex human drama unfolds, one that challenges cinematic conceptions of disability and the inherent flaws of human beings.
Cameras and filmmaking are a major theme of Rainbow Time. Image, imagination, and film itself form a bridge between the characters. As children, Shonzi and Todd made action films today, and Shonzi continues to bring his brother into that world as adults. Todd has even developed a kink for watching homemade porn involving himself and his girlfriend, something that initially repels Lindsay and becomes a source of conflict and revelation. Shonzi’s guiding of Todd’s cinematic life provides them a connection they otherwise struggle to form, with Shonzi casting himself as the romantic action hero and Todd as his nemesis, sidekick, or brother. The wish-fulfilling, solid nature of film allows each of the characters to express their desires, fears, and even perversions, filtered through Shonzi’s lens.
The dangers of a film like Rainbow Time are manifold, walking as it does on the edge between laughing with and laughing at. At first, it appears that the film is going to fail miserably in its project, creating Shonzi as the butt of jokes rather than a flawed, human character. But Rainbow Time is a slow burner when it comes to character development, and soon proves to exceed its initial superficiality. Shonzi’s love for filmmaking, his sex drive, and his occasionally limited understanding of the world around him makes for some awkward moments, driven by the even more awkward responses of Shonzi’s “normal” family. But soon Shonzi’s complexity comes out – he doesn’t understand why he can’t say certain things, or why his treatment of women as object is problematic, but he also proves willing to learn. He’s aware of and conversant with his limitations, often to a heart-breaking degree. Lindsay in particular insists on treating Shonzi as she treats everyone else, though she also falls into the trap of assuming that he simply “doesn’t understand” when he behaves inappropriately.
Todd’s relationship with the brother he grew up with is far more complex and ultimately more fraught – he’s worried about the things that Shonzi, who has little filter, will reveal to Lindsay, and worried about what the permutations of his relationship with Shonzi means about himself. Above all, the film attempts – and largely succeeds – at treating Shonzi with sympathy and humor; treating him, as Phillips says, like anyone else, rather than tip-toeing around him or holding him up as “inspiring,” rather than as a flawed human being.
Rainbow Time attempts to navigate several complex psychologies – Todd’s personal hang-ups and fears are filtered through the lens of his relationship with his brother, even when they’re not informed by that relationship. Lindsay, going through a nasty divorce and in love with an emotionally distant man, anchors herself through her beliefs in the healing power of crystals, essential oils, and student film projects. The imperfect nature of each character, with their sexual foibles, anger issues, outbursts, and awkwardness, drives home their inherent humanity. A more mainstream Hollywood production would insist on a clean, even romantic representation of human problems – Rainbow Time revels in its messiness symptomatic of human reality.
The occasional problems that Rainbow Time runs into mostly center on how it deals with Shonzi’s disabilities and the way that both he – and the film – navigate them. The film successfully avoids sentimentalizing the character and allowing him to be moving, funny, and often unlikable, much the same as we would expect from any other character. But because much of Shonzi’s characterization centers around an adolescent understanding of sexuality, the discomfort of the humor occasionally becomes too much, and almost comes off like the film is making fun of its own characters. While these moments peter out particularly after the first half hour and the slow-burn development of the relationships, they can make for some very uncomfortable viewing.
Discomfort is part of the humor of Rainbow Time, however, and it is to the film’s credit that it seeks to create realistically human characters out of people who are often marginalized. The love within the family is real, as are its conflicts: Shonzi is a flawed human being, not an inspiring symbol; Todd loves his brother and hates how he has to navigate around him; Lindsay wants to be helpful and winds up enforcing her worldview on the people around her. Rainbow Time mirrors the human relationships it portrays: strange, messy, awkward, and just a little crazy. For that, I think we can forgive it some occasional missteps and flaws. That’s human too, after all.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)