Review: Jeff Mizushima’s “Etienne!”

The premise of Jeff Mizushima’s debut feature Etienne! at first blush seems almost toxically quirky: Richard (Richard Vallejos), a shy, pudgy introvert, finds out his beloved hamster companion, named Etienne, has cancer. He decides to take the hamster out on a road trip to show him the world (or at least San Francisco) in the week he supposedly has left to live. This scenario seems ripe for the sort of winking, supercilious irony that has infected far too many American independent productions. However, Mizushima refuses to take such an easy route, and instead has crafted a genuinely heartfelt and endearingly earnest film that is as generous to all its characters as Richard is to the beloved pet he dotes on. This, plus a canny evocation of 1970’s cinema in its credits design and visuals, makes Etienne! a uniquely delightful film.

At the outset, Richard has just gotten a job as a maintenance man at a hotel after a decidedly odd job interview and first-day orientation. Richard is a genial, soft-spoken man sporting a distinctive handlebar mustache who talks to and interacts with others, but who clearly is much more comfortable around his constant companion Etienne. In the grand tradition of Benji, Lassie, and Milo and Otis, Etienne (played by multiple hamsters, all named in the end credits) is as instantly memorable a character as the humans in the story, making Richard’s devotion to this creature immediately believable and ultimately very moving.

Although the film’s focus is squarely on Richard, room is made for several other characters, as expertly drawn as the protagonist. One is Richard’s roommate Matt (Matt Garron), as gregarious as Richard is introverted, who spends his time laying down screeching vocals on thrash-rock tracks, and regales his girlfriend with stories about battling ninjas. Richard meets other people during his road trip with Etienne, most notably a French backpacker-scientist (Thibault Debaveye), a despondent man searching for his lost poodle (Vittorio E. Razi), and a traveling musician couple (indie-rock duo Great Northern, who contribute a lovely song dedicated to the hamster). The person Richard meets on his trip who gets the most screen time is Elodie (Megan Harvey), who embarks on a road trip of her own, taking a break from her college studies, and fleeing a failed relationship. Her sadness forms a corollary to Richard’s grief over his dying hamster; the film floats the possibility of the two of them having a more significant encounter beyond the narrative. Another significant character is a pinhole cameraman (Caveh Zahedi, writer/director/star of I Am a Sex Addict), who separately employs both Richard and Elodie to be in his photographs. The sequences with the photographer are the occasion for some strikingly beautiful passages of nature. The photographer opines on how randomness is part of the process in creating his photos; and Etienne! adopts this philosophy as its narrative strategy, showing us how random encounters with others often prove to be life-altering.

Etienne! will play a week-long engagement from September 3-9 at the reRun Gastropub Theater, a wonderful space in Brooklyn that forms the ideal setting for this immensely charming and intimately scaled film.