Generally speaking, even if you know screenwriting or storytelling inside and out, watching a movie that comments on the form and structure of filmmaking feels as excruciating as living inside Last Action Hero with Austin O'Brien in tow. Writers and directors who are too clever by half devote so much time to deconstructing the movie they're trying to make that they forget to actually entertain the audience, instead subjecting viewers to a laundry list of terms and techniques that they have all but forgotten to employ. Interestingly, The Scenesters commits virtually every offense that one of these "post-movies" can, and yet it manages to be hugely effective nonetheless.
A richly entertaining tome about wannabe filmmakers finding their lives imitating art as it imitates life, The Scenesters is destined to become a cult classic that actually also deserves to be seen.
Written and directed by Todd Berger, who also stars in the film as aspiring, dim-witted director Wallace Cotten, The Scenesters follows a crime-scene documentarian and a clean-up man who stumble unwittingly across the path of a serial killer. After Wallace's parents cut him off, the wannabe filmmaker finds work filming bloody bodies at crime scenes, whereupon he meets Charlie Newton (Blaise Miller), a guy who cleans up the gore afterward. When Charlie casually advances the theory that a series of murders have some murky link, Cotton and his erstwhile producing partner Roger (Jeff Grace) decide to make him the focus of their film.
At first Wallace and Roger are content for Charlie to come up with his own theories and ideas. But when a local newscaster named Jewell (Suzanne May) covering the case turns out to be Charlie's ex-girlfriend, they slowly begin to influence his investigation to make their plot more interesting – even if that means he and Jewell soon find themselves targeted by the killer.
Berger's biggest prior credit was as the screenwriter of the Kung Fu Panda spinoff short Secrets of the Furious Five, which suffice it to say didn't particularly suggest (nor did it need to) the depths of thought and sophistication the writer-director is obviously capable of here. Not only does he spend a good portion of the picture on screen discussing the direction and dimensions of the story he's telling from behind the camera, he chronicles the whole affair with a collection of supposed "found footage" that fits together as an effective whole without requiring the audience to embrace the conceit that idiots apparently tend to film events even when they should put the camera down and run away.
The film is bookended by courtroom testimony from the surviving participants, who further comment on their own creative choices as a prosecutor (Twin Peaks alum Sherilyn Fenn) screens footage for a judge (played by director John Landis). This essentially means that in certain scenes, a filmmaker is satirizing his own analysis of footage he shot which was deliberately manipulated while shooting it to make real events more dramatic. The fact that none of this machinery is exposed while the audience follows the story is but one of the film's strengths; a more important one is that this mishmash of scenes and found footage is entertaining, funny, and when it needs to be, scary.
Admittedly, the actual serial killer material is secondary to Berger's deconstruction of all of these indie-movie conventions, not to mention the juicy satirization of Hollywood hipster douchebags, who are not only victims of the killer but of the director's incisive point of view. But the movie is smart, scary, silly, self-aware, and none too serious, except in its execution, legitimizing its impact as something more than the low-budget movies it's mocking without necessarily claiming to be superior to them. Ultimately, as a compelling whodunit that manages to pack more of a punch than the latest retro-noir murder mystery, The Scenesters is a satisfying, successful look at predators and prey, hipsters and Hollywood dreamers, and films and filmmakers that doesn't purely chase its own tail -- and better yet, doesn't make moviegoers chase it either.