In some respects, "Conventioneers" is a traditionally structured story of lust and love between polar opposites. What makes it different is that Stephens set it right in the middle of the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan. Critical narrative scenes were staged in the flow of the actual anti-war, anti-Bush marches and demonstrations that surrounded Madison Square Garden. One whole sub-plot plays out on the floor of Convention, using an under-employed but solidly credible New York actor whose "day job" found him signing the President's acceptance speech for the deaf.
And, just as you are beginning to think this whole idea is just a clever gimmick, let me assure you that a fully-involving story unfolds with such immediacy that you would swear real people were being filmed by hidden cameras everywhere they went. The intimacy and truth is heightened by skillfully improvised dialogue by actors who have been thoroughly rehearsed by their young director. Stephens wrote the screenplay with her producer, Joel Viertel, who also takes a well deserved credit as editor. Stephens made the decision to shoot many of the dialogue scenes with multiple cameras to give herself and Viertel a wide variety of cutting options that are difficult to achieve with a traditional one-camera approach to an improvised scene. It is relatively easy to duplicate a performance of scripted dialogue when you move the camera to a new angle or focal length. It is almost impossible when the actors are ad libbing around a central idea.
Lea Jones (Woodwyn Koons) is a liberal Democrat who lives with her playwright fiancé in suburban New Haven, but is in the city as an organizer of protest activities surrounding the GOP convention. She loathes George W. Bush and everything he stands for, including the war in Iraq and conservative Republican ideologies. David Massey (Matthew Mabe) is a straight-laced, blazer-and-rep-tie-wearing Republican delegate from Texas. He spends a lot of time on the phone with his wife, but finds time to call his college chum Lea to let her know he is in town. When they get together for lunch, political sparks fly, as they discover that the gulf between his conservatism and her liberality will probably preclude a renewal of their friendship. But when they meet to share apologies, other sparks fly. Opposites do attract.
When she isn't meeting furtively with Massey, Lea is working to convince former classmate Dylan Murtaugh (Alek Friedman) to briefly set aside his new role as Daddy and Breadwinner and join her protest committee. Dylan is a sign-language interpreter with little time for anything but work and domestic duties. He hatches a plan to interpret the Bush speech for the hearing impaired, then stage a personal protest of the President's war policies. When you see actor/interpreter Friedman on the floor of the convention (and also playing the role of Alek), the daring reality of this film really hits home.
Koons brings a warmth, openness and vulnerability to her character who is passionate about her political beliefs, but worried about what to do when the campaign is over and she has to return to Connecticut and her somewhat dull betrothed. Mabe slides convincingly from a eager, somewhat righteous young conservative, to a confused, conflicted and eventually tormented guy trying to find a new life. They don't hand you an instruction manual when you remain celibate through college, then go home and marry your high school sweetheart. His closing scene will send you reeling.
In a sense, the concept of this film is so daring that I seriously doubt a more experienced writer/director would attempt it. Mora Mi-OK Stephens, who is not long out of the graduate film program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, was so young and so eager to make this movie that she didn't know it would be a logistical nightmare, a creative impossibility and a legal nightmare. She didn't know it couldn't be done, so she just went out and did it. I hope she will always view her career in those terms. If she does, she will make a lot of powerful films.