It’s hard to make a movie as good as “Turkey Bowl” precisely because it looks so easy. It’s just a 65 minute film told in real time about the annual football game between a bunch of old college buddies, right? Wrong. Think of all the nearly invisible elements that had to go right. The continuity in every shot has to match, from the quality and color of the lighting to the spreading sweat stains on the player’s shirts. Each play had to be diagramed and executed, and re-executed from every necessary angle, and then edited together to tell the story not only of the game but of all the rivalries, friendships, and feuds playing out on its sidelines. The only reason “Turkey Bowl” looks easy is because director Kyle Smith executed it with the skill and finesse of a Pro Bowl quarterback.
Smith — who, full disclosure, went to school with my brother (we’ve never met) — wrote the film and cast many of his friends to play fictionalized versions of themselves. Mostly they’re buddies from college, though Kerry (Kerry Bishé from the final season of “Scrubs”) recruits two strangers she meets in the park to join the squad. As they’re welcomed into the group, we meet the rest of the guys, like meathead Bob (Bob Turton), wiseass Morgan (Morgan Beck), and (my favorite) droll Tom (Tom DiMenna). They make a believable group of college friends: the sort thrown together by random chance and proximity and then united by shared experience and intense living arrangements. Like true old friends, they don’t spend much time voicing their feelings; part of the fun of “Turkey Bowl” is intuiting the histories between these characters from the dirty looks they exchange, or bitter jokes they make.
Like true old friends, some of them are closer than others. Without the intense living arrangements, others have started to drift apart. Again, little of that is said, but all of it is present in the way they play this game. It’s a small, compact film, but it feels like it’s been drawn from a bigger, expansive world. The film is just 65 minutes, short for a feature, but the right length for “Turkey Day,” even if it diminishes its chances of finding national distribution. 65 minutes is just enough time to get invested in the characters and the game and not enough time to get bored with the fairly repetitive nature of its structure.
As funny as “Turkey Bowl” often is, its melancholy ending underscores just how sad such annual rituals like this are. Even as they give us an opportunity to reconnect with friends, they remind us that we’re getting older and growing apart from the people we love. “Turkey Bowl”‘s single location and real-time structure (it begins with the arrival of the first players and ends with the departure of the last) isn’t just a low-budget trick or a narrative gimmick. Emphasizing the passage of time in the story forces us to consider the passage of time in our own lives, to realize how fleeting those happy moments are and how they matter so much more than the score of a football game. Yes, the film’s short. So is life.