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Originally published Friday, February 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"The Guatemalan Handshake" | From Slamdance: an off-kilter rural portrait

The Slamdance Film Festival, which is made up of Sundance Film Festival rejects, occasionally turns the spotlight on such indie gems as...

Special to The Seattle Times

The Slamdance Film Festival, which is made up of Sundance Film Festival rejects, occasionally turns the spotlight on such indie gems as "The Daytrippers" and "Mad Hot Ballroom."

Todd Rohal's "The Guatemalan Handshake," from last year's Slamdance, hopes to achieve a similar success, but it's a strange mixed bag. Although Rohal's goal seems to be a rich character study, the movie works best as a celebration of small-town Americana that persists well into the 21st century.

The images are what linger: a dreamy fireworks display, a swimming hole with a swing, a psychedelic roller-skating rink, a demolition derby that ends in chaos. The cameraman, Richie Sherman, uses the CinemaScope frame to capture the relatively undisturbed fields and farmhouses of rural Pennsylvania. At one point, he turns the camera sideways, pushing the limits of wide-screen technology to suggest a fresh perspective.

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Guatemalan Handshake," with Katy Haywood, Rich Schreiber, Sheila Scullin, Will Oldham. Written and directed by Todd Rohal. 97 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (includes adult themes, partial nudity). Northwest Film Forum.

Will Oldham, the Kentucky songwriter who played an aging hippie in "Old Joy" and a boy preacher in "Matewan," is the only marquee name, but he's not around for long. Most of the movie is built around his character's disappearance following a community-crippling power outage. He plays Donald, the restless boyfriend of a pregnant girl, Sadie (Sheila Scullin), and he's mostly seen in flashbacks.

Once he's gone, the movie begins to center on Stool (Rich Schreiber), a sweet-natured, foul-smelling loser who gets fired from a series of jobs. Always in need of attention, he moons a car dealer and takes off his shirt whenever the occasion seems to call for it. He pursues Sadie, or anyone else who will give him the time of day, but mostly he's going nowhere.

The other characters are sketches, though the actors suggest they're capable of more. Scullin makes the most of Sadie's announcement that she's moving in with Donald's dad — and demands dinner pronto. Ken Byrnes, as the dad, does a nice slow burn in response. Rohal relies heavily on Katy Haywood, who plays Donald's 10-year-old best friend, Turkeylegs, to convey the sense of abandonment that permeates the film.

"The Guatemalan Handshake" is being promoted as a mixture of David Lynch and "Napoleon Dynamite." It's not really like either of them, but Rohal's fondness for the milieu is distinctive. This is his first feature. Perhaps he'll have a more compelling story to tell in the next one.

John Hartl:

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