At the risk of exposing my privilege, the worldwide nightmare that is COVID-19 didn’t really feel real to me until the cancellation of the Boston Underground Film Festival. As anyone who’s haunted this town’s local independent cinemas for any amount of time surely knows, BUFF is among the Boston area’s most beloved institutions of cinematic strangeness, a five-day bacchanalia of oft-indescribable filmic visions. Even if you’ve never attended, longtime Hassle readers will surely recognize it for the blitzkrieg of coverage it receives here at the site, as our dedicated staff of critics and film writers take it upon themselves to experience and review as much of the festival as possible. For me personally, BUFF has become a sort of summer camp experience, a week in which I cast aside all other responsibilities and give myself over to my two favorite activities: sitting in a darkened movie theater, then going home and writing about it. By the time the announcement was made, it felt inevitable (I had already begun drafting the inaugural Cinema Quarantino post), but it still hammered home the fact that this will affect everybody, and that that somehow included me too. (As I write this, BUFF has been postponed to a date yet unknown; if you’d like to support them in the meantime, you can donate to the cause here).
In the face of these wracking BUFF withdrawals, a movie like Butt Boy feels like a tonic. While it probably won’t be an Oscar contender (though with the possible lack of viable nominees this year, who knows!), it epitomizes the BUFF spirit: ragged, anarchic, and unlike anything you’re likely to see anytime soon.
The titular butt boy is Chip Gutchel (writer-director Tyler Cornack), a suburban schlub with all the signifiers of middle-class malaise: a soul-killing office job, a passionless marriage, and a baby in whom he does not have the slightest interest. In the midst of this bleak existence, however, Chip discovers an awakening in the most unexpected of places: a proctologist’s office. Searching to recreate the spark he feels during his examination, he begins secretly experimenting with things around the house, slowly graduating from his fingers to a bar of soap, then to the remote control. Then, uh, the family dog goes missing. Things get out of hand when a child disappears from a local park, and Chip, fearing scrutiny towards his seemingly cavernous anatomy, attempts suicide.
Flash forward nine years. Chip has cleaned himself up, subduing his urges through regular AA meetings and sponsoring rough-edged detective Russell Fox (Tyler Rice). But when another child goes missing and Russell is assigned to the case, he begins to suspect the literally unthinkable about his mentor in sobriety. But can he convince his chief without sounding like he’s fallen off the wagon?
I’ll get this out of the way up front: this is a feature film called Butt Boy, and it is both as pleasant and as subtle as one would expect from the title. It also suffers a bit tonally and structurally; while it may be too much to ask to like the anally-superpowered child abductor, Chip is such an abysmally vacant character that it’s tough to enjoy spending much time with him (the AA group leader introduces him as “one of the best” sponsors, but with Chip’s visible disinterest in helping Fox it’s difficult to see what led him to that conclusion). Cornack and most of his collaborators have roots in the Chicago improv troupe Tiny Cinema, and at times it’s easy to see this as a skit blown to feature length.
Yet Butt Boy also has far more on its mind than the standard one-note gross-out comedy. In using Chip’s abominable orifice as a metaphor for addition (with specific intimations of pedophilia and repressed sexuality), Butt Boy has an indelible streak (sorry) of soulful melancholy. Chip may be a shitbag, but he’s also a deeply sad individual, and Fox’s struggle with his inner demons is never once played for laughs. There’s probably a version of this film that could be made without the central joke, and it honestly wouldn’t have to change all that much in order to work as a sober character drama.
But oh, that joke. What’s remarkable about the most outrageous elements of Butt Boy is that the film rarely goes for the most obvious gags; some of my favorite moments, such as the repeated shots of Fox donning rubber gloves and holding a flashlight in a distinctly proctological manner, are played wonderfully deadpan. Then there’s the third act, in which the gloves come off and Cornack dives head-first (again, sorry) into the surrealism of the premise. The result is a truly strange scatalogical phantasmagoria, like a budget version of the psych-horror coming out of Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision studio. Even knowing the premise at the outset, you won’t be prepared for some of the places Butt Boy goes, and the climax is both deliriously satisfying and unapologetically gross.
As a whole (ugh, I am so sorry), I loved watching Butt Boy. What it lacks in polish (there has to be a turd joke in there somewhere), it makes up for in invention, wryly scatological humor, and personal vision. What’s more, it reminds me of what I love about the independent festival circuit, and reviewing underground film in general. BUFF, and the rest of the moviegoing world, may be on pause, but films like Butt Boy give me hope that the demented visionaries out there will never stop giving us their odd little gems– and that’s what matters in the end (you know what? I’m not actually sorry at all).
dir. Tyler Cornack
Now available on VOD
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.