There’s an enormous difference between being alone and being lonely. This is often portrayed as a uniquely suburban conundrum: One could live with several family members, be surrounded by other people on all sides, pass by countless drivers as they commute to and from home, and still feel a profound, unshakable loneliness. Neighbors’ houses sit a little more than an arm’s length from one another, and their nearly identical floor plans trigger that surreal, dream-like sense of unplaceable familiarity. By stripping away any sort of individuality, this similitude only deepens that paradoxical feeling of isolation that can exist within a community. There’s a suffocating sameness to this labyrinth of homogenized homes, and it can be found on the periphery of most major American cities without fail. St. Louis is no different, as evidenced in local filmmaker Stryker Spurlock’s debut feature, Part Time, which explores the mind-numbing mundanity of North St. Louis County suburbia for one offbeat twentysomething.
Casey (Casey Paulsen) needs a car. Barring the occasional ride he hitches with his friend Rodney (Jordan Keesee), he has to walk everywhere until he gets one. Back and forth from work, early in the morning and late in the afternoon, past cars and homes and businesses full of people he doesn’t know and will never know. It’s not that he’s unfriendly or unappealing — plenty of people at work and at home clearly like talking to Casey, even if he doesn’t have much to say back to them — it’s just that he’s a perpetual stranger of sorts, drifting from one liminal space to the next with the same blank expression of dejection. There’s not anything particularly terrible about his life that has made him this way, either. Sure, he works a boring job as a book sorter, but he has a loving family and a small group of friends and co-workers who enjoy his presence, even if he’s not always present.
Despite this, no one but the audience cares (or even notices, really) that Casey’s despondency is a blatant call for help, an obvious indication of the nervous breakdown to come. Ill omens abound: strange dreams of failing to live up to the untenable expectations of an obnoxious regal couple, dizzy visions of surroundings shifting and blurring together, a cacophony of soundscapes that drowns out the tedious conversations of those around him. There are even several prolonged ruminations on the inexplicable nature of weird dreams, completely removed from Casey’s (albeit infinitesimal) narrative. He’s trapped in his own little world, in other words — one where he appears to disassociate at will — but he also looks too exhausted to even care. It’s not exactly apparent what it all means (undoubtedly by Spurlock’s design), but it’s obviously a burden on Casey.
For this reason, Part Time’s effectiveness hinges entirely on Paulson’s performance as Casey, who is essentially the antithesis of an everyman. There is no personality to relate to, no prominent character traits to observe, no lasting impression to be made, no poignant monologue to serve as a rallying cry for the Caseys of the world. He’s a cipher, a blank canvas, an invisible man. However, this is what ultimately makes Casey’s journey (or lack thereof) watchable: the desire to know how long he’ll be able to continue living like this, without energy or purpose or emotion or hope. The answer is no clearer by the end than it is at the beginning, but at least there is a breaking point that suggests Casey is making some progress. What kind of progress— either positive or negative — is left to the viewer to decide.
In a way, Spurlock’s Part Time feels like the next step in the natural progression of the slacker comedies of the ’90s, the mumblecore dramedies of the ’00s, and the post-mumblecore dramas of the ’10s. The film’s themes of complacency and social ineptitude, its feelings of being unmoored from and unsatisfied with daily life, its disconnect from the bindings of modern technology, and its focus on dialogue and relationships over plot place all place it firmly in this wheelhouse. However, its incorporation of (and, in the back half, reliance on) surrealism takes it beyond this indie cinematic current and toward something that, at this point in time, has yet to find a label. Strangely enough, this revelation means Part Time is just as lonesome as Casey himself.
Part Time screens at the Arkadin Cinema on June 10 at 8:30 p.m. A Q&A with director Stryker Spurlock will follow the film.