Mark and Jay Duplass’ Do-Deca-Pentathlon is a raw, naturalistic and barely budgeted film about two brothers revisiting a boyhood competition—a 25-event sports tournament that includes arm wrestling, pool, the long jump and ping pong. Swimming is about as sophisticated as it gets; it’s not so much the Olympiad as a Dude-iad. But because the two brothers, both in their mid- to late-30s, have been estranged for years, the competition is freighted with emotions ranging from anger to envy. Do-Deca is a stripped-down examination of male relationships and identity crisis. It’s as if someone picked up a bromance and shook the dumb bits out.
The film opens with Mark (Steve Zissis, a regular Duplass player who starred in Baghead and had a small role in Jeff, Who Lives at Home) sitting in a bathtub airing one of his old grievances about his brother, Jeremy, to his wife Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur). Since it involves Jeremy (Mark Kelly) defecating in the tub during a shared bath when presumably the boys were young, it’s quickly established that this grudge is both deep and on some level, absurd. The couple heads off to Mark’s hometown to celebrate his birthday with his mom (Julie Vorus). Jeremy is not invited.
(READ: TIME’s Q&A with Mark Duplass)
But Jeremy ditches his poker tournament (he’s a professional card shark, although his slacker wardrobe makes him look more like a card flounder) and shows up anyway. The only person happy to see him is Mark’s smart-aleck son Hunter (Reid Williams). Within hours, Jeremy is putting pressure on Mark for a do-over of the Do-Deca. In 1990, their parents insisted on declaring it a tie and the relationship between the brothers hasn’t been the same since. Mark is already suffering from stress that requires pills; Stephanie hovers over him, making sure he’s taking care of himself and staying calm. There’s a humorous but undeniable horror film vibe to some of these scenes: describing his brother, Mark says he looks like a leprechaun, but an evil one, and the way the actor is shot through doorways, red-faced and bearing a resemblance to Michael Keaton in a bad mood, he does seem menacing. He’s also pathologically childish, sneaking off to make crank calls with Hunter. The film makes an easy case for being on Mark’s side.
Until it doesn’t. This is a little slip of a movie, shot with easy intimacy and not a single frill, but there are big ideas in here, particularly about the way men approaching middle age struggle with the burden and privileges of family versus those of an unencumbered life. Zissis gives an inspired, almost desperate performance while Kelly reveals levels of vulnerability and unexpected maturity in Jeremy. They’re both first-rate, but the performances by both women feel weaker and awkward, not quite there. The Duplass brothers’ strengths, both as writers and directors, seem to lie with male characters.
(READ: TIME’s review of Jeff, Who Lives at Home)
They could have called this movie The Grass is Always Greener because in the end the real source of horror is the sense of being stuck in one rut while in full view of another that looks somehow more enticing. Jeremy tells Hunter his dad has been a “fake tool” lately, and of course, the pre-teen agrees. But Jeremy loves that kid and the kid loves him, and you sense the longing for a kid of his own practically coming out of his pores, along with the whiskey and cigarette smoke from all those tournaments. And at the same time, Mark’s jealousy of Jeremy’s freedom and ability to roll with the punches is equally palpable and understandable. On the one hand Stephanie’s disapproval of the tournament is exhausting and, on the other, she’s right to be that way; the competition turns Mark into a lunatic.
The brothers shot Do-Deca, which opens theatrically this week after being available on video on demand (including iTunes, where you can still get it), in their home state of Louisiana, right after Baghead (which was more overtly a horror film). Do-Deca languished for four years while the Duplass brothers became name brands. They put the unedited Do-Deca aside for projects that paid, including two they directed, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and several others that Mark Duplass acted in. In an interview with Indiewire, Mark Duplass referred to Do-Deca as being like a great demo to the polished record of Jeff, Who Lives at Home. Duplass’ remark is apt, even if Do-Deca is more good than great. It may be minimalist, but it isn’t minor.
(READ: TIME’s review of Cyrus)