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D: Alex Lehmann / 89m

Cast: Mark Duplass, Ray Romano, Kadeem Hardison, Dendrie Taylor

For Michael (Duplass), the news is very bad indeed: he has terminal cancer. For his neighbour Andy (Romano), the news is also very bad indeed: he will lose his only friend in the world. The two live at the same apartment building, and have developed a close bond, spending their evenings and weekends together, watching kung fu movies and eating pizza, and playing a game of their own invention called Paddleton. When Michael decides that he doesn’t want to reach the stage in his illness where he’ll be connected to tubes and wires and spending more time in hospital than not, he tells Andy that he wants to kill himself before he reaches that point. Having arranged through his oncologist to pick up medication that will allow him to do this, Michael and Andy set off on a road trip to collect it. Along the way, Michael becomes aware of just how much his impending demise is affecting Andy, and encounters with a pharmacist (Hardison) and a motel owner (Taylor) reinforce the sense of loss that Andy is beginning to feel. When they return home, it remains to be seen if Michael will carry out his plan, and if he does, whether Andy will help him…

Made under the banner of the Duplass brothers’ production company, Paddleton rolls out its stall in the very first scene. With Michael calmly receiving the news that he has a mass and it should be checked out by an oncologist, it’s left to Andy to react in the way that you’d expect most people to react: he gets flustered, questions what Michael has been told, and looks for a more positive response from the doctor they’re speaking to. There’s comedy and pathos here alongside the obvious drama of the situation, and these three elements are the mainstay of a movie that takes a subtle, nuanced approach to the idea of euthanasia, while also exploring the strength of a friendship that has never been tested by something so serious – and life changing – before now. It’s a measure of the way in which the script (by Lehmann and Duplass) tackles these issues that the movie remains affecting and emotional all the way through, and without coming across as melodramatic or insincere, or worst of all, patronising. With the friendship between its two central characters having been so carefully plotted and constructed, Paddleton is a bromance that has unexpected depth and honesty.

This is thanks to both the screenplay, and the combined efforts of Duplass and Romano. Duplass is a quiet, solid presence, imbuing Michael with a sombre nobility, and entirely convincing as a man who wants to die on his own terms. Romano is something of a revelation, taking Andy’s many insecurities and inhibitions and making the character a fully rounded individual whose lack of social skills hides a greater capacity for love and affection than even he may be aware of. Romano’s performance is affecting and full of little touches that illustrate just how much he’s already grieving even though Michael hasn’t gone through with his plan yet. And yet there are small moments of hope dotted here and there for both characters, and though the movie has no intention of proving itself untrue to both the characters or the narrative, it’s these small moments that add detail and poignant circumspection to a story that is both heartfelt and intelligently handled. Lehmann builds on the promise shown in Blue Jay and Asperger’s Are Us (both 2016), and ensures that the more dramatic elements don’t overshadow the comedy – which is both bittersweet and meaningful – and vice versa. The end result is a movie that tells its simple story with a great deal of subdued yet effective panache, and without short changing either its characters or its audience.

Rating: 8/10 – low-key but brimming with confidence in the material and the downbeat nature of its themes, Paddleton is the kind of low budget indie movie that comes along every now and again and reminds us that there are still valid stories to be told about the human condition; touching without being sentimental, and bold in not pandering to any unnecessary romanticism about Michael’s decision, this is a well crafted and beautifully acted movie that shows just how complex and rewarding brotherly love can be.