As FORT TILDEN begins, twentysomethings Holden (Bridey Elliot), a fledgling artist, and Allie (Clare McNulty), a someday lawyer, are sleekly groomed and smugly listening to the earnest musical offerings of some friends at a rooftop concert. With carefully posed faced showing only the slightest trace of ironic detachment, they text their caustic barbs to one another about the music, the musicians, and everyone else within their sightline. By the end of the film, they will be bedraggled in both body and spirit as an ill-advised trip the beach turns into a journey of reluctant discovery.
The beach is the eponymous Fort Tilden, and the impetus is the cute guy (Jeffrey Scaperrotta) that Holden meets after the concert. Though she is the instigator, it is Allie who is forced to rouse Holden from her slumbers the next morning, organize bicycles for them, and otherwise coax her roomie and best friend into doing what said best friend is guilting Allie to do. That includes blowing off her meeting with Cabiria, the Peace Corps officer tasked with getting Allie ready for her two-year stint in Liberia, a trip that everyone agrees is just another plan that will be discarded before coming to fruition. The phone calls and texts from the never-seen Cabiria will punctuate the action like the voice of life itself calling as the two women meander through Brooklyn on their way to the ocean, strewing confusion, anger, and bemusement in their wake.
As a study of drifting millennials, FORT TILDEN is merciless. Holden and Allie are sublimely lacking in any self-awareness, but to differing degrees that make the day as much about the simmering resentments of their relationship as it is about the life lessons that they will almost learn. As two people who have floated through life never quite learning the basic lessons of kindergarten, it will take more than one day to penetrate all the layers of self-absorption and ennui. Hence when they arrive at what they dub their “rape moment”, they do not reach in their backpacks for a rape whistle, but rather for a sedative. It is the perfect stasis of their lives that has deadened them into little more than neurological responses and sarcasm, a stasis that allows them to watch someone stealing their bicycle, comment upon it as it’s happening, but not leave the store where they are waiting in line to pay.
As a comedy of comeuppance, it is a subtle thing, funny in its satire of a generation lacking in empathy but thinking itself as saints, but there are the melancholy undertones of lives wasted by people who think they are accomplishing much, and would accomplish more if only life were not so unfair. As in hard. As in not handed to them on a silver platter. A melancholy emphasized by the duos greatest accomplishment, not getting along with anyone. Their encounter with Benji (Peter Vack), Holden’s sometime hook-up is a finely realized study in the art of the put-down. Their visit with Allie’s friends Amanda (Desiree Nash) and Marin (Becky Yamamoto) and their pretentious plate of macarons, is a masterpiece of not-so-passive aggression.
Elliot and McNulty take being vapid to new and fascinating levels. They embrace the essential awfulness of their characters with gusto, letting us in the audience in on the joke of their cluelessness, but neither Allie nor Holden. They also respect the psychic shock the day delivers to those ladies, leaving room for us to feel a modicum, a small one granted, of the empathy that for them is so alien.
FORT TILDEN is also an existential horror comedy of sorts, one that fulfills the most basic tenet of the horror genre. Which is to say, there is never a moment that we aren’t grateful to whatever powers that may be that we are not to be those lost souls up on the screen.