Heartland Film Festival: ‘When Jeff Tried to Save the World’ is a high score for indie filmmaking

Jeff, much like the games he enjoys playing, lives in a loop. As  manager of Winky’s World (a combination bowling alley-arcade), he wakes  up at the crack of dawn every morning, and goes to work. He beats his  high score on Whizzing Winky (an arcade cabinet he built himself) for  the upteenth time, turns the lights on, sprays the shoes, opens the cash  register, and pours a cup of coffee for his boss. His coworkers come  in, the day goes on, and he stays after everyone has left to close the  place down. He goes home, takes his medicine, and goes to sleep. Jeff  has been doing this for so long that he has seemingly become a master of  the little world that exists inside of Winky’s faded neon signage and  hardwood interior. Before he knows it, Jeff’s world is about to come  crashing down on him.

Expanded from a short film of the same name, When Jeff Tried to Save the World  follows Jeff (Jon Heder, of Napoleon Dynamite fame), the manager of a  retro bowling alley, who’s forced to fight for his status quo when the  alley’s owner decides to sell it off. While having to deal with the  problems and personalities of his coworkers in the process, Jeff is  ultimately forced to confront his personal demons and anxiety in order  to stand up for Winky’s. That said, saving the lanes is a lot easier  said than done.

To put it bluntly, I genuinely enjoyed this film. From the first few  minutes of the film, we are immediately immersed in the semi-titular  “world” that Jeff lives in, and despite the somewhat decrepit state of  Winky’s World, the set design gives scenes that take place here a  boxed-in, yet comforting feeling. The cinematography of the film is also  extremely well done, using a blend of traditional techniques and the  occasional use of shaky-cam where necessary and having it all feel  natural. My favorite element in the overall scheme of the film happens  to be the extensive (and often symbolic) use of neon, fluorescent, and  natural lighting, depending on the scene. At times, the film often has  its’ characters bathed in one of the three, and it almost acts as a  sense of mood lighting that genuinely enhance the performances on  display.

In a sense, Jon Heder was born for this role. Obviously, he’s no  stranger to material similar to the work he does in Jeff, but his  performance here feels like the natural dramatic evolution of that kind  of perpetual underdog/outcast role that most audience members have come  to know him by. As the titular character, Jon mainly keeps to himself  and focuses more on physical acting early on in the film, yet as the  story unfolds, he makes some fairly interesting choices regarding his  performance that make it stand out. That’s not to devalue the rest of  the ensemble, with highlights coming from Candi Milo’s Sheila (Jeff’s  boss) and Richard Esteras in a bit part that pays off near the end of  the film.

What left is there to say? The score is fantastic, the effects are  excellently done, and the whole package has a sense of cohesiveness that  leaves any unanswered questions in the end with a sense that things’ll  work out. When Jeff Tried to Save the World is an unabashed  coming of age story (for those who have seemingly already done so) that  comments on and uses the very concept of nostalgia in order to weave a  tale that embraces the uncertainty of what is to come and how that  unpredictability can help us grow as people. At the end of the day, this  movie isn’t playing with the bumpers up, and the emotional strikes it  hits are all the sweeter for it.

Featured Image: Heartland

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