Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin’s “Now, Forager” – New Directors/New Films 2012 Review

“Now, Forager” was created as a conscious corrective to other food-based films that co-directors Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin felt were overly romantic and inaccurate in culinary terms.  Here, they offer a smaller, scrappier, de-romanticized version of the foodie film that emphasizes the gathering and preparation that goes into creating dishes.

The directors’ interest and passion for this subject is obvious in their film’s loving attention to detail, and there is much that will appeal to advocates of the now trendy “slow food” movement.  The film’s title is a punning variation on “Now, Voyager,” best known as the Bette Davis vehicle whose title was derived from Walt Whitman’s two-line poem “The Untold Want.”  The second line of this poem, quoted in the end credits, reads, “Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”

The thrill of exploration and discovery is a driving force for the main characters, a married couple who forage for wild mushrooms in the woods of New Jersey.  Cortlund plays Lucien, a self-serious mushroom expert and self-consciously anti-establishment individual who, along with his wife Regina (Tiffany Esteb), makes a living selling the mushrooms they gather door-to-door to New York restaurants.  There is much beauty and fascination to be found in this work, expressed in Lucien’s running voiceover describing the varieties, uses and potential poisonous dangers of different mushrooms, rendered in often gorgeous close-up images courtesy of cinematographer Jonathan Nastasi.  However, this is a very unstable source of income, leading to a precarious existence in which, as Regina says, there is “no margin for error.”  To that end, Regina takes a job in the kitchen of an upscale seafood eatery, which Lucien resentfully sees as a personal betrayal.

“Now, Forager” is an appealingly low-key, low budget indie that invests its hipster-friendly scenario with great attention to detail, especially in the preparations of the Basque cuisine representing the cultural background of the married couple.  As far as performances go, Esteb especially impresses with her believably naturalistic performance that nicely conveys her character’s sense of being torn between her love for her husband and her dissatisfaction with his seeming lack of ambition and purpose, despite his vaunted expertise.  Cortlund’s strengths as a director, however, don’t quite extend to his own performance, which is rather one-note and doesn’t quite elicit the sympathy for his character and his deteriorating circumstances that it should.  “Now, Forager” nevertheless exhibits quiet strength with its visual beauty and subtle observation of both nature and people.  A word to the wise, though: in case any of the lovely images of wild mushrooms happens to seduce viewers to try foraging for some themselves, a stern disclaimer at the end credits strongly advises against this, advising consultation with trained experts.

“Now, Forager” screens at the Museum of Modern Art on April 1 at 4:30 p.m.  To purchase tickets, visit the New Directors/New Films website [http://newdirectors.org/film/now-forager/].