***1/2 (out of four)
In the sort of role Tobey Maguire would make wide-eyed and bland, Jonathan Groff (“Glee”) shines as “Samuel” in “C.O.G.,” a part and a movie that stare down a high degree of difficulty and win.
Adapted by writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez from an essay by David Sedaris, the film observes Samuel, whose real name is David, as he leaves behind a privileged life to pick apples in Nowhere, Ore. He’s looking to go off the radar to gain the kind of perspective Nick Offerman writes about in his excellent forthcoming book “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” On Samuel’s long bus trip west, an ex-con preaches the power of God. Samuel says religion is for people not smart enough to know how the world works. "What’s your problem with the Bible?" the stranger asks. Replies Samuel: “It’s poorly written.”
This is a film that both respects and questions faith, something rarely done without judgment. While delivering scenery so beautiful you can practically feel the moisture on the leaves, Alvarez shows that it’s easy for snarky, deceptively closed-off Samuel to look down on others. He’s never been alone and needed help, and it doesn’t seem like he’s had motivation to lend a hand either. With his false name and commitment to his Yale sweater, Samuel may as well say, “This time is not real to me.”
“C.O.G.” probably has a little too much fun setting up the fish-out-of-water situation, as Samuel takes unwarranted breaks and fumbles around with a butane tank, discovering what actual labor means outside the Ivy League. Yet the tone of this delicate drama zeroes in on a true sense of life experience without heroes or villains, only people with different limits to how far they’re willing to go for someone else. Samuel’s time with religious advocate Jon (Denis O’Hare) and a charitable family (including Casey Wilson of “Happy Endings”) teaches effortlessly and quietly, a rarity when dealing with people trying to persuade others how to live.
The exploration of sexual identity in “C.O.G.” likewise is subtle, almost so much so that it may slip by someone who’s not paying full attention. Still, everyone in this wonderful surprise is looking for a place to belong while ultimately having to look out for No. 1. And I don’t mean that in the spiritual sense.
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