Home-grown Celluloid

The Declaration - November 2, 2006

By John Ruscher

When the screening of Swedish Auto began Thursday night at the Paramount, one of the first scenes showed the main character going to eat lunch at Mel’s Cafe, a diner located on West Main Street. The audience erupted into a cheer, happy to see a familiar Charlottesville landmark. Luckily this was the only applause during the movie, because if everyone had clapped for each familiar location, no one would have been able to hear the film. Swedish Auto, written and directed by Derek Sieg and produced by Tyler Davidson, both U.Va. graduates, was filmed entirely in Charlottesville in the Fall of 2005. Besides Mel’s, the film also includes scenes of the Downtown Mall, Chap’s Ice Cream, the Rotunda, and nearby reservoir Beaver Creek (in which the main characters take a spontaneous swim). Charlottesville plays a very important role in the film, and this fact made it a great opening night feature for this year’s Virginia Film Festival.

Sieg and Davidson have already screened the film at a number of other festivals (it won the audience award at the Athens International Film Festival in Greece and received honorable mention for best feature at the Woodstock Film Festival), but in Charlottesville they found their ideal audience. One of the most effective and moving aspects of the film is the way in which it portrays the atmosphere and character of Charlottesville—and who could be better at understanding this than the residents of the city? Going beyond merely using Charlottesville as its background, the film uses its plot and characters to help paint an active and dynamic illustration of the city. The main character, Carter (Lukas Haas), is a mechanic in an auto shop that specializes in Swedish models, especially Volvos. Living in an odd and small warehouse-turned-apartment, Carter often wanders the Downtown Mall with a Chap’s cone in hand, gawking at the street performers and families on their evening outings. He’s the essential “townie.”

But as much fun as it is to wander around the Downtown Mall and people watch, things aren’t that simple. Carter harbors a fascination for a beautiful U.Va. violinist named Ann (Brianne Davis). He sits outside her window to listen to her practice every evening. His obsession with Ann and her music, however, is disrupted when he finds that he has a stalker of his own, a fellow “townie” named Darla (January Jones). What follows is a gripping story of the push and pull of Carter’s complicated life.

The choices that he faces help demonstrate his complex and difficult position. Will he pursue Ann, the seemingly untouchable figure that he has idealized from a distance, or will he help Darla escape from the grips of a dangerous and abusive family situation? Will he get over his fear of driving a car, stemming from an accident in his childhood that killed the rest of his family? Will he leave Charlottesville? His struggles help show the intricate forces at work not just in his own life, but also in the city itself. The problems addressed range from the struggle of being lower class and alone in a predominantly affluent, family-friendly city to the division and inevitable clash between university and certain aspects of local culture.

Haas, Davis and Jones make up the central plot of the film, but they are not the only actors who put in a good showing. Lee Weaver provides an excellent and jovial performance as Leroy, Carter’s boss at the auto shop. Chris Williams also contributes a good role as Bobby, Leroy’s son and Carter’s jealous co-worker.

The full-capacity crowd at the Paramount seemed to really enjoy the film, and it is not hard to see why. Though Sieg and Davidson now live in Los Angeles, Swedish Auto shows that they have not forgotten Charlottesville’s unique character. While central Virginia has had its fair share of locally-shot films (including the forthcoming big-budget Evan Almighty, which was shot in Crozet this past Spring), Swedish Auto does more than merely utilize the beautiful countryside or historic buildings. With its portrayal of local establishments, its relaxed pace, and focus on Volvos (the preferred car for the typical local family), Swedish Auto is, to put it simply, distinctly Charlottesville.

John Ruscher is a fourth-year English major who, in fact, lives in Crozet.

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