For more than a decade, filmmaker Lynn Shelton has been making relationship-driven dramedies with some of the independent film scene’s most talented actors from Mark Duplass to Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page and even Emily Blunt (before she was Mary Poppins, of course). When she’s directing her own material, Shelton settles in with her small ensembles, nestling into their homes or places of business and building a narrative around what unfolds while the camera runs. Though she’s filled time between films with gigs directing television like “Fresh Off the Boat” and “GLOW,” she returns to her comfort zone with Sword of Trust, a silly little comedy of errors starring Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins and Jon Bass as four people who never expected to find themselves in the situations they end up in together.
Maron is Mel, the cantankerous owner of a pawn shop who gets by buying and selling the minutiae of our daily lives, passing the time ribbing his employee Nathaniel (Bass) for his laziness and shooting the shit with neighboring store owner Jimmy (Al Elliott). Elsewhere, Cynthia (Bell) and her partner Mary (Watkins) arrive at Cynthia’s recently deceased grandfather’s home for a meeting where they anticipate hearing the news that he’s left the house to her. The first curveball of the film hits when the lawyer they meet informs them that in fact, the home has been repossessed by the bank and all Cynthia is getting is a dull Civil War-era sword and an incoherent letter her grandfather wrote about its apparent history. Without much else to do with it, the couple find themselves at Mel’s shop to sell the sword, trying to convince him of the story they can barely wrap their heads around: that the South actually won the Civil War and this sword is somehow proof of it.
One can imagine Shelton stumbling into this world of conspiracy theorists (yes, there really are people who believe this) and dreaming up Sword of Trust, a low-stakes slice of life comedy that drops a witty quartet of sound-minded liberals into a world of Confederate flags and “facts” so absurd all one can do is laugh. When Mel realizes there actually is a market for a sword like the one Cynthia and Mary have, he calls them back to the shop and ups his offer after they opted not to sell to him at first. Not ones to be taken advantage of, they insist on being cut into the deal he’s cooking up.
The entire stretch of events in Sword of Trust happens over the course of an afternoon; along the way, Shelton manages to make the proceedings meander without ever feeling lost. The four leads banter and chide at every opportunity (Maron and Watkins are especially at home with the repartee), and for a film that fills nearly every moment with dialogue, not a single scene feels superfluous. Characters are given depth in moments that reveal bits of backstory, and cinematographer Jason Oldak finds blink-and-you-miss-’em moments—a look here, a reaction there—that nearly induce spit-takes, they’re so perfectly timed to the momentum of the scene.
There’s plenty of heart here, but make no mistake that Shelton’s made a comedy; watch it on your own and you’ll find yourself chuckling throughout (at least). Watch it with a crowd at the cinema, and one imagines the whole theater will be cackling along at the goofiness of it all, a welcome escape from the very unfunny reality of the narrow-minded among us.
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