Mushroom-foraging and Manhattan restaurants, with a side of social commentary

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Now, Forager. ()
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Now, Forager, co-directed by Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin, tells the story of a couple, Lucien (Jason Cortlund) and Regina (Tiffany Esteb), who survive by foraging for mushrooms in upstate New York and then selling said mushrooms to fancy restaurants in Manhattan.

Lucien and Regina live almost off the grid, taking restaurant jobs in the winter season, counting the days until spring when the mushrooms will come out again.

Lucien wants to get out entirely and follow the mushrooms south, living out of their car, giving up civilization altogether. Regina is drawn to the restaurants where she drops off mushrooms. She's a good cook, she wonders if she could make a career out of it.

When Now, Forager sticks with food, it is a sometimes-riveting depiction of two people who are committed to their lifestyle, and committed to excellence in food. The film is, in many ways, a foodie's dream.

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Both Lucien and Regina are of Basque origin, and feel strongly about keeping those culinary traditions alive. But Lucien is out of place in an urban environment. He pounds the pavement with his tray of exotic mushrooms, and his demeanor is sullen. He has no sense of humor. He wants to get on the road and never get off it. Regina yearns for a job, health insurance.

The script is clunky when it gets into their relationship problems (Regina: "I tell you I want more stability, and you give me Grapes of Wrath!"), and the actors never manage to suggest what drew the characters together in the first place. Perhaps it was a bonding over food, perhaps it was their Basque roots, but whatever it was, those feelings are now long dead. When Regina accepts a job at an excellent new restaurant, a good opportunity for her as a cook, Lucien acts like it is a betrayal of their deepest-held beliefs, which may make him seem like a hero in some circles, but it actually reveals him as insufferably self-righteous.

We follow their separate journeys over one winter. She gets caught up in her new job, and he hits the road, traveling south to search for mushrooms. His mushroom stash is stolen in the woods by two wandering machete-wielding members of the Russian mafia. Apparently, Russian mob guys stroll through the forest threatening mushroom foragers on a daily basis. Who knew?

Lucien has no money so he takes a local catering job in order to earn the money to drive home. He is hired by a wealthy woman (Gabrielle Maisels) married to a guy who works for a conservative think tank in Washington.

Her home is palatial, she is furious that no one has been by to rake her leaves, an au pair girl takes care of her baby daughter, and she is planning an important party and bossily helps plan the menu with Lucien. The scenes involving Lucien and the wife are quite funny, in a broad way, which seems out of place alongside the earnestness of the rest of the film but brings some necessary lightness. It also shows Lucien's talent as a cook. He prepares appetizers and main courses for her to taste, and is grudgingly silent when she gives him suggestions. She is also a foodie, you see. She wants Lucien's food to wow her guests. Despite the comedy of these interactions, and Maisels is very funny, the political commentary comes off as simplistic and immature, broadly telegraphed to the audience in a ham-fisted way: Republican equals Entitled Moron. Lucien, despite his talent with food, and with mushrooms, is, simply, too pure to live in the everyday bustle of life, and it is difficult to feel that his scam of this Republican woman is in any way a triumph.

The relationship between Regina and Lucien is tepid to begin with, and so their tailspin into separation seems inevitable from almost their first interaction. It's obvious that she needs to have a career as a cook (although when she is offered a job in Rhode Island, she is unable to submit to the needs of the clientele, due to her own snobbery, and is fired), and that traveling around in a beat-up van, following the mushroom crops, will not be her thing. And Lucien, camped out in the woods, cooking mushrooms in a fry pan as the rain pours down on his car, clearly needs to limit his interactions with other humans.

Filmed with a lush attention to detail in the natural world, including magnificent closeups of terrifying-looking gorgeous mushrooms, accompanied by Lucien quietly telling us in voiceover the Latin names of each one, Now, Forager sometimes has an elegiac and bittersweet tone, a tone that could have been elaborated upon.

We see these beautiful mushrooms, and Lucien calmly tells us that this one will bring about euphoria, this one will bring on diarrhea, and if you eat this one, you will die. Now, Forager is an interesting take on the food business, and how the natural world is transported to the restaurants in the concrete canyons of Manhattan.

A bit too self-righteous for its own good, with a terrible cutesy title (a riff on the line in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass), Now, Forager still has some interest, when it sticks to what it knows best: food.

Now, Forager is playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Arts New Directors/New Films series. For tickets and schedules, click here.