Cummings Brings ‘Thunder Road’ to Deauville Festival

Cummings Brings ‘Thunder Road’ to Deauville Festival

In the opening of “Thunder Road,” the main character, Jim Arnaud, tries to deliver a funeral eulogy for his mother. There is no question that Jim, a boyish police officer, loves his mom. But after a few minutes, there’s also no question that he is having a minor meltdown in front of a room full of people.

He rambles on, apologizes, tries to play a song on a small portable stereo, and does a little dance. The camera does not cut away.

This eulogy is one in a series of mortifications that Jim, played by Jim Cummings, undergoes in the movie, at the hands of frustrated co-workers, a sharp-tongued ex-wife and his own unimpressed preteen daughter.

“It’s like a much sadder version of my life, or the ghost of Christmas future,” Mr. Cummings, who also wrote and directed “Thunder Road,” said by phone from Los Angeles. “I’m creating this horrible, pathetic version of what my life could have been and then finding empathy and comedy in that.”

The singular vision of Mr. Cummings’s film placed it squarely within the interests of Bruno Barde, the longtime director of the Deauville American Film Festival, which opens Friday. The 44-year-old festival in the resort town of Deauville, France, puts a spotlight on American independent cinema.

“Thunder Road” fits the mold of a small-scale film willed into being by determination, obsession and a modest budget.

“‘Thunder Road’ partakes in the established independent film tradition of the ‘self-made man’ who writes, directs and plays the main character,” Mr. Barde said, aligning its antihero with “the great tradition of American comedies from Charles Chaplin to Woody Allen and the Coen brothers.”

Like the other American films featured at Deauville, “Thunder Road” had its world premiere elsewhere, at South by Southwest. It will screen in a competition selection that cherry-picks primarily from standouts at Sundance and SXSW, such as Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” “American Animals,” Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” “Puzzle,” and “Blindspotting.”

The jury, led by the actress Sandrine Kiberlain, includes the writer-director Stéphane Brizé, whose films “At War” and “The Measure of a Man” had their premieres in Cannes.

“In the U.S., the independent cinema doesn’t benefit from all the help we have in France. But at the end, we see the result of a strong need. And a masterpiece is always the result of a strong need,” Mr. Brizé wrote in an email, declaring his “eternal curiosity about these films which sometimes come from nowhere.”

It will be up to Mr. Brizé and the rest of the Deauville jury to judge “Thunder Road,” which will compete for attention with a fleet of stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Morgan Freeman, Shailene Woodley and John Grisham.

But the film — named after the 1975 Bruce Springsteen song, which in turn borrowed the title of a Robert Mitchum movie — certainly bears the stamp of a strong need.

Mr. Cummings, 31, made “Thunder Road” after first making a short by the same title that was comprised solely of the funeral monologue. It had taken him a few years to find his feet, eventually working as an associate producer on “Krisha,” directed by Trey Edward Shults. Before then, he put in time as a production assistant at Industrial Light and Magic.

“I was very much a nobody,” Mr. Cummings said, his voice bearing the softest trace of growing up in New Orleans (alongside seven siblings).

Mr. Cummings’s ready self-deprecation might make him sound like just another poster boy for underdog indie filmmaking. But the director retains his own, perhaps Jim Arnaud-like quirks of expression and enthusiasm. He happily explained, for example, that being both director and star “saved time on set and an extra meal” and saved him from having to “download” all the specifics of his character “into another person’s brain.”

Playing Jim Arnaud, the fresh-faced Mr. Cummings brings a hapless candor that suggests the character is only barely keeping up, whether it’s during a dinner conversation with the family of his squad-car partner, or playing patty-cakes with his daughter. The episodic film is essentially one long slow-motion breakdown, culminating in a very public rebuke in the parking lot of the police department.

In many Hollywood comedies, Arnaud might be portrayed as just another man-child to mock. Mr. Cummings, who has made a number of comedic shorts, did state a fondness for the obliviously gauche British character Alan Partridge played by Steve Coogan. But “Thunder Road” makes a case for Arnaud as a good-hearted goof, the sort of guy that a sister or brother might worry about, and maybe not fully understand.

“It’s O.K. for the audience to not know how to feel when they’re watching something, because you can lure them in and disarm them with comedy and then you get to talk about big stuff,” Mr. Cummings said.

Mr. Cummings’s strategy is reflected in the film’s use of long takes in shooting scenes. It’s a way of resisting the rhythm of reaction shots that might cue the viewer to laugh at a scene or feel a certain way. In the story itself, we’re also encouraged to take Arnaud seriously through the compassionate character of his partner, and boundlessly patient friend, Nate (Nican Robinson).

The resulting emotional payoffs earned “Thunder Road” its share of plaudits: the top narrative prize at SXSW, a plum slot in an independent showcase held in Cannes, and a Variety review pronouncing Mr. Cummings “a born filmmaker” who had made “one of the most authentic eulogies you’ve ever seen in a dramatic feature.”

The film’s Deauville showing will lead into a national release in France, and in the United States, it screens in October at over 15 theaters under the auspices of Alamo Drafthouse. It will also be available on video on demand this fall, and next year, on Amazon’s streaming platform, Mr. Cummings said.

Mr. Cummings is keeping his options open but does have at least one project on the horizon that promises to continue his particular brand of tonally complex emotion with an intriguing premise.

“I’m in development for a TV show about astronauts coming back to the suburbs. Which is another melancholy comedy,” he said.

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