The opposite of the popular “meet cute” of romantic comedies might be the “meet crash” encounter of indie dramas, in which a traumatic accident brings strangers toward self-awareness and redemption. Recent examples include Deborah Chow’s Montreal-set The High Cost of Living and Mike Cahill’s Sundance sci-fi hit, Another Earth, and Kenneth Lonergan’s grand folly, Margaret. By comparison, Hit ’n Strum, written, directed and starring Kirk Caouette, is just a fender-bender.
Though the film offers some fresh views of an undisguised downtown Vancouver and touches on some of the ongoing gentrification tensions, it is a technically competent but clumsily scripted drama about a legal princess and a musical pauper that loses momentum right after the initial collision. At best, the film serves as a showcase for writer-director-star Kirk Caouette’s listenable, melancholic tunes. Comparisons to the Irish busking musical, Once, are inevitable and perhaps intentional.
When lawyer Stephanie (Michelle Harrison) takes her eyes off the road to scan a legal document while driving through Vancouver’s downtown, she smacks into a bearded man, who slides off her broken windshield, stands up and stares at her before she drives off.
The next day, Stephanie sees him busking outside her office and realizes that he is a fixture in front of her building that she has never previously noticed. The busker, named Mike, dismisses her awkward attempts at an apology. To compensate, Stephanie wanders into a music shop and drops more than three grand on a new acoustic guitar as a present. This makes little sense since the one thing he already owns is a decent guitar. The proud Mike rejects her guilt gift and gives the guitar away to a stranger. Yet Stephanie proves puzzlingly persistent in her desire to make amends.
When Mike’s telltale cough gets worse and he doesn’t turn up for busking duties one day, Stephanie goes out in her mended BMW, finds him under the Georgia Viaduct and delivers him to the hospital for repair. Later, she decides to “manage” his musical career, which leads to a sequence that is almost comically out of touch with the contemporary music industry. One odd notion in the script is that, as a powerful person, Stephanie personally knows everyone else who is powerful, from public housing officials to record producers.
Neither character is credibly rounded. Stephanie seems less of a sharp-minded professional than a stereotype of sheltered feminine privilege, with her private-school attire (hair down, short skirts, pearl necklace) and a life apparently dominated by a jerky developer fiancé and a nose-in-the-air blueblood mom. For much of the movie, Harrison is left trying to find variations on earnest and concerned.
As for the truculent Mike, we get a brief hint of daddy problems that have put him on the streets, along with his Jamaican busking buddy’s diagnosis: “You make beautiful music, mon, but you got a blockage in your soul, boy.”
No doubt Hit ’n Strum is a well-intended parable about the ripple effect of kindness, but the story can’t avoid a simplistic self-righteousness, mixed with a familiar male fantasy that a pretty angel will descend and help an underappreciated artist, armed with four chords and a chip on his shoulder, unblock his soul.