Reviewed at the New Orleans Film Festival.
The full title card of this movie reads “Lord Byron: Based on a True Story.” Quite a ‘true’ story: a pot-smoking, do-nothing ladies man on a journey of self-discovery, surrounded by a cast of eccentrics including a coke-snorting playright, a nutjob survivalist, and a penny-pinching lottery winner. One suspects “Lord Byron” is a true story in the same way the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo” is; in other words, not at all. The disclaimer might be a joke, or a fake-out, or an all-purpose expectation up-ender.
Maybe it would be more accurate to say “Lord Byron” is based on truth. The characters are all played by non-professional actors, the dialogue is improvised, and the locations all appear to be real (and really messy) apartments and houses. Atop that essentially factual (or factualish) framework writer/director Zack Godshall places an suspiciously fanciful tale full of coincidence and revelation.
It’s a decidedly strange mix. Early scenes could almost be mistaken for documentary, if not for an ever-present voiceover provided by the title character (Paul Batiste, a barber by trade). Byron spends his day mooching off his ex-wife, getting laid, waiting for his girlfriends to get off work so he can get laid some more, and getting stoned. Then the film’s scope expands to witness the lives of the people around Byron, and a lot of them are awful weird (see the list above). Then Byron’s life takes several drastic turns and he’s sent off on a literal and metaphysical journey into the great unknown.
In its blend of documentary and narrative tropes, “Lord Byron” reminded me of a few movies I’ve seen on the festival circuit lately — most recently “Aardvark” at Fantastic Fest — that combine reality and fantasy onscreen in unusual ways. These movies place non-actors in familiar settings then send their lives veering off on weird tangents. There is something interesting in these works about the tension between fact and fiction, but there’s also something frustrating too: the actors aren’t as good as professionals would be in a traditional fiction film, and the worlds they inhabit aren’t as revelatory as they would be in a traditional documentary. “Lord Byron” has some clever ideas, a few nice scenes (I particularly liked Byron’s drug-dealer-slash-begrudging-cosplayer), and a lot of gangly loose ends. The movie break a few boundaries but never breaks through its own limitations.