Spin The Bottle is the type of movie that perhaps best justifies the existence of independent film making: Certainly good and enjoyable enough to be worth watching, but eschewing the easy answers and simplistic emotional payoff that so often accompany mainstream Hollywood studio-produced fare. Thin on plot, it completely focuses on its characters: Who they are, where they're going, and why. More an extended vignette than a fully-realized story, it's the sort of work that probably exists to stimulate discussion as much as to be enjoyed.
The film depicts a reunion between five childhood friends who are now in their mid to late twenties: Two men, Ted (Mitchell Riggs) and Jonah (Holter Graham), and three women, Bev (Kim Winter), Alex (Jessica Faller), and Rachel (Heather Goldenhersh). Ted and Bev have been a couple virtually forever, and have recently been engaged. (They thought the engagement was still a secret, but some of the others know.) Though the other four have all kept in touch (and got together as recently as six months ago), Jonah has been incommunicado for the last ten years, during which time he has matured from a spindly, nervous kid to a rather hunky, bare chested, nose-pierced young man over whom the women – including engaged Bev – only semi-jokingly swoon. The reasons for his absence are alluded to as something for which Ted feels guilty (and apologizes). The reasons for, and repercussions of, his return are what drive the film.
The movie takes place at a country house/summer camp on a lake where the five spent their summers together as kids. It is there that they first used an empty wine bottle to play the classic kissing game for which the film is named, and it is there that Jonah gets them to play the game again, ostensibly just for kicks. (Now, as then, gender pairing does not limit the matches, and as the others have to remind Ted: "Of COURSE we're playing 'tongue'!".)
Naturally, the game and its aftermath become the vehicles by which the film explores the various insecurities and conflicts of its characters: We see that pure & mousy Bev is neither as pure nor as mousy as we originally thought. We receive confirmation that Ted's engagement to her is just another example of his taking the path of least resistance through life rather than the result of true passion. (Much like his entering law school to please his family.) And we learn that Jonah has not gotten over what happened between him and Ted as kids nearly as much as he led Ted to believe.
And, of course, we learn what it was that had happened in the first place: Ted and Jonah had done some sexual exploring together as adolescents, and afterward Ted had initiated public taunting and ridicule of Jonah to cover his own involvement. This had led to Jonah's estrangement from the others for the last decade.
Of Jonah's present-day course of action, I'll try to avoid giving away too much of whatever plot there is, and say only that it involves multiple seductions. The most interesting question that arises from it all is, why? Does Jonah do what he does merely as "sexual revenge" (a phrase taken from the DVD box cover), or are his reasons more convoluted and tinged with genuine concern for the others involved? This is the sort of question which director/producer Jamie Yerkes (who also wrote the original story) leaves the audience to ponder. As well as the question, where do they go from here? Can anything we saw result in something positive for the characters, or is it all just tearing down and destruction? These are interesting questions. If this were a Hollywood production, we'd probably receive nice, pat answers. But fortunately it's not, so instead we get a nice little movie that makes us think but lets us do so for ourselves. (There is a teensy little min- happy ending for Rachel, but we can't really begrudge her that.)
One of the nice things about movies that are almost completely character-driven is that we get a chance to see actors portraying individuals who are interesting and quirky while still being completely down-to-earth and believable. That is the case here, where even the most over-the-top character -- Rachel, with her tremendous self esteem issues and her needy dependence on a biker dude who goes by the name "Sledge" -- is imbued by Heather Goldenhersh with a sort of intimate humanity that is as endearingly vulnerable as it is hilarious. I love the way she goes immediately from desperately needy (on the phone with Sledge) to motherly (worrying about Ted) in what I'll call the "oatmeal scene".
Contrasting most extremely with Goldenhersh's Rachel is Mitchell Riggs' Ted (who, if we had to pick one, would be the main character of the movie). I imagine it must be a great challenge to portray a man who is so mild mannered he could give Clark Kent pointers, without making him come across as a milksop. And to my eye, Riggs succeeds. His quiet, understated expressions as he interacts with people or simply watches a scene unfold may leave us wondering exactly what Ted is thinking at any given moment, but there's never any doubt that he always is thinking. (And it's very important that we believe Ted is not as (pardon the expression) pussy-whipped as he might at first appear, for subsequent developments – including his response to Alex's sexual teasing and everything that happens with Jonah – to make sense.)
I have to admit I disliked Kim Winter's character Bev almost from the start, without really knowing why. Eventually I saw that she's the sort of person who is quiet not because she's comfortable with who she is and doesn't need to prove anything to anyone, but because she's repressed, insecure, and fake in that judgmental way that assumes everyone else is fake and judgmental, too. But I'm not sure why I responded so negatively at first. Perhaps it was the slightly disdainful weariness I thought I saw in her eyes at various points while talking to Ted, or the wariness in them when she and Ted first came across Alex. Or maybe it was that little sweater she wore that just irked me in some way. I dunno. In any case, it seemed completely believable that her character would do what she does in the film, and still manage to act as if she were virginally blameless herself. (And when she delivered her final, hateful diatribe to Ted, I found myself feeling vindicated for my initial dislike.) All in all, Winter did a great job of portraying a character that I would never care to know in real life.
Then we have Alex. She's referred to as the sex-pot of the group, and she clearly is at least a bit of a -- again, pardon the expression -- cock tease. But Jessica Faller makes Alex seem more light-hearted about it than predatory, even down to the ironic glint in her eye when she helps Jonah explain sexual politics and the nature of "the patriarchy" to Ted. (As if she were joining in with Jonah only partially in an attempt to start worming her way into his bed, and partially just to get Ted's goat.) By the end of the film, I was wondering whether her semi-advances to Ted might be her attempt to do what Jonah may have been doing from a different angle: Open up Ted's eyes to certain realities of his life and situation.
And finally, there's Jonah. Holter Graham's portrayal of the sexy prodigal friend is a tad subdued emotionally, which works well for the part. Besides making him appear masculine and self-sufficient, (and therefore sexy to the women), this emotional reserve makes it believable that he's put the past behind him and moved on. ...Which makes it that much more affecting when we find that this isn't quite the case. It also makes the ambiguous or mixed nature of Jonah's motivation work, where a more emotionally effusive depiction of the characters would have insisted on one motivation of the other: Either Jonah wanted to hurt/destroy Ted, or he wanted to help/save him. It is Graham's restraint which lets writer/director Yerkes leave us right he wants us: In the middle, debating the exact nature of Jonah's goals.
And when it is done well, as it is here, the ambiguous middle isn't such a bad place to be.
Click here to purchase "Spin The Bottle" at Amazon.com
Unrated, but mature for adult sexuality and themes
DVD extras include a commentary track and theatrical trailer. Spoiler alert: If you don't want to learn more about the specifics of the movie than what is revealed in this review, watch the trailer after the film.