With his debut feature, “The Book of Caleb,” Bucks-born writer/director Matthew Von Manahan is bringing the beauty of a very familiar suburb to more and more screens (of all sizes).
By R. Kurt Osenlund
There's a little movie out there that's been gaining buzz for over a year, attracting coverage from media outlets and trickling out to wider audiences. Born of humble origin, it was backed by a very modest budget and saw nearly a decade in development. Putting a contemporary spin on a classic tale, it focuses on a struggling protagonist who has yet to discover his destiny. No, it's not the latest festival darling to sweep the nation, a la “Slumdog Millionaire.” It's “The Book of Caleb,” a locally shot and set quarter-life-crisis comedy directed and co-written by a Bucks County native. The hard-won fruit of years of labor and logistics, “Caleb” marks the feature debut of filmmaker Matthew Von Manahan, a 28-year-old Florida State University (FSU) film school grad who cut the movie in the basement of his parents' Holland home. It may not be on the march to Oscar but, thanks to ongoing theatrical engagements and exposure via an entire network of new media platforms, “Caleb” is tip-toeing its way onto the screens of viewers well beyond its home base.
“It really came together on dreams,” says unknown actor Jeremy Luno of the film. Also an FSU grad, Luno plays the lead role of introspective wanderer Caleb Callahan. “There were certain tangibilities to what was going on but, all in all, it was running on the fuel of dreams.”
Primarily, the dreams were those of Manahan, who developed “Caleb” from a series of shorts he directed before finishing college in 2003. The shorts and the feature they inspired follow, in chapter form, the suburban travails of Caleb, a character who'd get along great with Dustin Hoffman's Ben Braddock from “The Graduate.” Lost in the same fog of early 20s, “what-next?” uncertainty, Caleb is a kindred spirit to Braddock; however, he's no graduate. With less than a year remaining in his Bachelor's program in paleontology (an offbeat major that conjures digging-for-meaning metaphors), Caleb unexpectedly dropped out and returned to live with his parents in Bucks County. This is where and when the movie catches up with him, as he reconnects with the people, places and things of his past and begins a new chapter in his life, unsure of where the pages will lead. He re-teams with his childhood pal, the habitual prankster Montag (Michael Hampton), and his smart-yet-silent sidekick, Swank (Nikitas Manikatos). He faces down formidable villains in the form of Scar (Jeff Berg), an intentionally cartoonish cop with old scores to settle, and Paddington (late actor Paul Gleason of “The Breakfast Club”), a similarly animated, local politician with a soft spot for American history. Caleb also finds new love in Cole (Mackenzie Firgens of “Groove”), a level-headed brunette whose voice of reason challenges his loyalties but may just be precisely what he needs to hear. The romance is a healthy discovery but, as with any young man's journey, what Caleb seeks to find most is himself.
“When you're growing up, you have a very defined world that's basically no farther from your home than the distance to school,” Manahan says. “When you go to college, all those things that you thought were reality start getting slowly eroded. It's really easy for people to feel lost by that. (Caleb) is trying to sift through all these different ideas, and all these different people are telling him what he should do when the only thing he should be doing is thinking for himself.”
A child of suburbia and a 20-something himself, Manahan has created a film that's at least partially autobiographical, containing the kind of small-scale stressors that fairly privileged college grads on the cusp of adulthood can find monumental. In this sense, “Caleb,” penned by Manahan with buddies Michael English and Joseph Valenti, is quite accurate, amplifying those stressors to a decibel that will ring true to many a confused quarter-lifer. Its absurd humor, however, though innocent and purposefully over-the-top, is pretentiously quirky even for an indie, often feeling like the inside joke collection of a very exclusive fraternity. The themes and intentions remain intact, but little oddities like Montag's pranks that are meant to establish conflict register as foreign and frivolous and they limit the appeal of “Caleb” to the college-age demographic.
That said, any objections to the movie's narrative are promptly quieted by its picturesque, anything-but-low-budget look, which captures the natural beauty of Bucks in ways that native pros like M. Night Shyamalan might only dream about. Manahan jokes that his production process, with its basement headquarters and high school interns, lacked traditional professionalism, but his finished product – which he calls a “suburban epic” – emits it scene after scene. Shot with a borrowed camera on 35mm film scraps by D.P. Michael Gioulakis, “Caleb” is imbued with the essence of the area, from its colonial history to its striking autumn landscape. Locals will notice settings like Washington Crossing Park and Holland Elementary School, as well as neighborhoods and streets that may very well be their own. The familiarity of such places in such a great-looking feature film is thrilling, to say the least.
Though “Caleb” wrapped production nearly three years ago, it never saw an official theatrical run. Instead, Manahan and his independent production company, Guns & Butter Entertainment, have taken a sort of reverse approach, releasing the film online, then on DVD, then through individual screenings. The backwards method has allowed this small movie to gain big-time exposure, spreading from Bucks to God-knows-where via Hulu.com, IMDb.com, iTunes, Joost.com, NetFlix, YouTube, Amazon.com and eBay. It's screened for audiences in New York City, Boston and, just last month, at Doylestown's County Theater, right in the heart of Manahan's stomping grounds.
“It was great to have a hometown screening,” says Manahan, who's now pursuing his passion in Hollywood but flew back east for the County event. “It was a really great experience. I got to reconnect with friends, family and even the people who helped out on the movie.” People, he says, who were “amazingly efficient and passionate. The whole community was very helpful and the film couldn't have been made without that support.” Manahan is currently developing his sophomore project through the talent agency that employs him. His original claim to fame can be found by logging on to http://www.bookofcaleb.com/ and following the links to mini-theaters all across the Web.
This article was also published in Inter-County News Group's The Good Life magazine and has been reprinted with permission.