The fly on the wall has an appropriately compound eye in Marilyn Freeman and Anne de Marcken’s Group, a real-time emotional rescue gleaned from 20 weekly meetings of a fictional Olympia, Washington, therapy group. Splitting the screen six ways, the film proposes ever shifting hierarchies of seeing to echo the complicated business of listening, the fluid tactics of talk. When blue-haired, tattooed Pipi (Nomy Lamm) gives vent to her sometimes muddleheaded quasi-anarchist views, she can fill half the squares; but even Claire (Kari Fillipi), who barely utters a peep, may materialize in a corner block, her pretty face an inscrutable cloud. The film is as sensitive to her mute frustration—to the group’s darting eyes and constant fidgets—as it is to the other members’ more volatile declarations.
Pseudonymous therapist Ruby Martin orchestrates the “Queer Friendly” proceedings (though an older woman and a devout Christian raise eyebrows) with supreme patience, radiating a benevolence that helps navigate the group through its more chaotic stages. Judgments flourish despite the frequently professed antipathy to judgment. The viewer’s opinion of any given member is as susceptible to change as that of the participants, ever on the verge of turning the ostensibly supportive atmosphere into a claustrophobic hothouse of outbursts, fragile alliances, and stammered apologies. It’s refreshing when Rita (Lola Rock’n’rolla) interrupts a particularly incoherent rant about “dolphin consciousness” by muttering, “God, I wish I were back in New York.” But the group situation begs the question: Does this wry crap-detector share anything but her reflexive cynicism?
Though the characters are in fact sustained improvisations, the roles feel inhabited rather than acted—a quality acutely present in scenes of excruciating awkwardness, as when Violet (Vicki Hollenberg) wildly tries to enlist sympathy as she gets buried under her own half-formed arguments. The most staggering performance is Carrie Brownstein’s prim, barrette-wearing Grace, whose high-school-principal father is leaving her mother for a student. Angry and flustered, she touchingly enacts a paralanguage of rolled eyes and worried necklace beads that admit all the fears she’s so reluctant to verbalize. Mastering its formidable arithmetic of cameras and souls, Group articulates a flood of emotion.
Notorious C.H.O. also concerns group therapy in the Pacific Northwest, after a fashion: Comedian Margaret Cho talks about herself, and the capacity crowd at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre hangs on her every word. Prefaced by a self-congratulatory montage of fan testimonials, Cho’s schizo routine sandwiches armchair sociology and Stuart Smalley moments between the colonic jokes.
All stand-up comedy is oral aggression, but Cho’s is an especially fascinating strain. She begins, topically enough, with a preposterous account of “giving blowjobs to rescue workers” at ground zero; similar blue gags follow, often with punchlines repeated up to three times, with diminishing returns. The word outlaw appears twice in Notorious C.H.O., first to describe the explicitly sexual nature of the material (and her initial trepidation at having her parents in the audience), second in reminiscences of how, as a child, she would scarf down food not germane to her anti-fat regimen. With sex and eating thus transgressing parental approval, she seeks a substitute: the love of the audience. She’d like to empower some us: “For us to have self-esteem is an act of revolution,” she says. Such banal sentiments ring false, even pathetic. She needs us far more than we need her.