A story that doesn't have to be loud to be engaging.
In Kevin Chenault’s Different Drum (named after the Stone Poneys song), we follow two young ex-lovers as they take a road trip from South Dakota to Indiana, exploring and sampling the local flavor of 9 Midwest cities, all while learning to leave the past behind and accept each other in a new way. It’s a cute, humble, intimate portrait of small-town America whose main characters are so relatable we want to give them a big hug.
Tod (Zach Zint) is an unemployed, peniless musician (he’s banking on selling some of his old comic books for dough) from South Dakota who’s forced to drive to a wedding three states away with his pregnant ex-girlfriend Lydia (Isabella DeVoy). Though they haven’t spoken for a while, there’s still a strong chemistry between them, sharing the same deadpan humor, taste in music (Tears For Fears sing-along!), and taste in drinks (Sarsaparilla, PBR). It’s revealed gradually that there’s still a good amount of unresolved tension between them, as the split may not have been as amicable as we first thought (“You broke up with me, asshole!”). As they push through the the quirky landmarks, bars, eateries, motels, and bargain bin shops of the 9 cities on their road map, running into small-town eccentrics along the way, the shared sense of discovery helps them to reestablish the bond between them while accepting the new role they play in each others’ lives.
The story is divided into chapters, each represented by a city on Tod and Lydia’s Midwest tour. Chenault, is patient and deliberate in his storytelling, never over-embellishing scenes with needlessly wordy dialog that plagues other small-budget indies of the same ilk. This is a simple story about everyday people, and Chenault’s got enough taste and restraint to know that that’s interesting enough. The drama isn’t loud or hard-hitting, but it’s utterly human, relatable, and of our time.
Though both first-timers, Zint and DeVoy turn out effortless performances that feel delightfully naturalistic. It’s fun to hang out with them. They walk and talk like real people, and they don’t deliver lines like big-time Hollywood actors because the grounded story doesn’t call for that kind of performance. It would have been nice to have seen some genuine laughter from them, though, as their often expressionless, apathetic delivery can occasionally sap the energy out of a moment.
Some of the supporting players are written for laughs and more broadly, resulting in some tonal unevenness when they interact with our protagonists. However, there are also wonderful scenes involving real-life locals, including one set in Sioux City, Iowa, in which a 90-year-old man tells Zint and DeVoy that the diner they’re sitting in used to be called “Pete’s Pickle Palace” in 1951, when he moved to the city. “All they sold was hamburgers and french fries!” Raw, spontaneous moments like these are Different Drum‘s best.
There are some genuine laughs throughout the film, including a tree branch accident that results in an eye patch for Lydia, and a urinal mishap that results in soiled shoes for Tod. The film opens with a hilarious scene in which Tod swipes clothes from a thrift shop, evoking the likable pitifulness of many a Woody Allen and Coen Brothers protagonist.
Chenault, a native of Evansville, Indiana, has a deliberate visual style and is clearly enamored with the quaintness and unexplored corners of the towns his characters visit. Despite the film’s short running time of just under 80 minutes, he takes time to show carefully composed still shots of forgotten buildings, old roadways, and public parks, capturing that sense of quiet comfort everyone who comes from a small town is familiar with. The soundtrack, featuring several indie artists, fits the film like a glove and only kicks in when needed.
Different Drum doesn’t make any sweeping statements about love or deliver any bombastic moments of high drama, because it’s more true-to-life than that. It’s refreshing to see a young director like Chenault show such restraint so early in his career (this is his second feature), telling a story that doesn’t have to be loud to be engaging.