A few years ago, Jim Cummings was just another wannabe with a crazy dream of making a movie. In 2016, despite having no practical experience, he wrote, directed and starred in a short film, playing the role of a police officer making a disastrously misjudged attempt to deliver a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. The short won a prestigious award at Sundance and, spurred on by this, Cummings decided to work it up into a full length feature, raising a shooting budget of around $180,000 via Kickstarter and several private investors. When distributors offered him a risible amount of money for world rights to the finished film, he figured he might as well go ahead and distribute it himself…
Now here is that feature, which starts – just as the short did – with Officer Jim Arnaud (Cummings) delivering his eulogy, including a toe-curling attempt at interpretive dance to Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. Unlike the original film, this version is further complicated by the fact that he cannot get his daughter’s boom box to work. The camera remains unflinchingly focused on his humiliation throughout, and I sit watching in turmoil, unsure whether I should be cringing or laughing. In the end, I experience a combination of both extremes, as Cummings performs a perilous tightrope walk that feels simultaneously challenging and exhilarating. Happily, what follows doesn’t feel like a hastily conjured add-on, but a compelling story in its own right.
Arnaud is a man on the very edge of a nervous breakdown. He has recently separated from his wife, Rosalind (Jocelyn DeBoer), and is desperately trying to connect with his young daughter, Crystal (a delightful performance from Kendal Farr). Rosalind is making no secret of the fact that she’s planning to go for sole custody in the upcoming divorce, leaving Arnaud to face the prospect of being completely alone, something which terrifies him. Meanwhile, he struggles to carry on with his duties as a cop, pushing his best friend, Officer Nate Lewis (Nican Robinson), to the very limits of his patience.
Thunder Road is a terrific little independent film, a salutory lesson to those who claim that movies simply cannot be made without the investment of a major studio and a multi-million-dollar budget. Cummings depicts a character who is a bubbling cauldron of insecurity and anger, forever boiling over and giving others the wrong impression. Watch the scene where he meets up with Crystal’s teacher, Mr Zahn (Macon Blair), to explain why his daughter is having problems at school. As Arnaud becomes ever more volatile, we fully understand why Zahn chooses to surreptitiously slip a pair of craft scissors into his pocket.
Those who saw the trailer for this can be forgiven for expecting some kind of screwball comedy, but it’s so much more than that. There’s real poignancy here and a lightness of touch that usually only comes after years of experience in the film business. Cummings is evidently a natural, and a name to watch out for in the future. Meanwhile, those who’d like to see the original short (where Officer Arnaud does get that pesky Springsteen song to play) can check it out on Vimeo.