SWAN SONG – Film Review By Susan Kandall


Todd Stephens (writer, director) is a master chef. When he set out to conjure up a delicious recipe for a film, he started with a great story, added a pinch of humor, a dash of pathos and a hefty helping of special sauce – that being German actor Udo Kier.

Todd Stephens’ tragic comedy premiered (online) at the SXSW this year and recounts the poignant and true story of flamboyant hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger, a man who lived life strictly on his own terms. Not an easy feat for a gay man in the ‘80s living in Sandusky, Ohio.

“Mister” Pat was once the preferred beautician of the elite in the small town of Sandusky. But now, his existence is reduced to a small room in a nursing home, He spends his endless, joyless days sneaking a smoke and compulsively folding napkins pinched from the dining room. Lonely and overwhelmed by the death of his soulmate David years ago, he stares blankly into space. Occasionally his good nature shines through as he ushers a wheelchair bound nursing home resident into a hallway, lights 2 cigs and silently, together they enjoy a puff or two. It’s such a heartbreaking and lovingly kind gesture and not a word is uttered. No need for dialogue. Stephens has an innate sense when to let his actors speak, by not speaking at all. Their expressions tell you everything you need to know. Little does Pat know, but his life is about to change. And aren’t we lucky we get to go along for the ride?

A local lawyer shows up at the nursing home one day to inform Pat that one of his former hair clients has passed away (the ever glamorous Linda Evans). She has stipulated in her will that Pat was to coif her hair for the funeral. Evan’s character and Pat were once close friends – or so he thought. But when she neglected to appear at his boyfriends’ David’s funeral, their friendship was forever severed with great rancor. Pat’s not keen on the idea of coming out of retirement, but is eventually persuaded to perform this one last rite of passage. And so begins the journey, a road trip from the nursing home to the funeral home – without so much as a car. Who needs wheels on a cross town road trip?

The balance of the film is punctuated by the folks he meets along the way and memories of the past. Each scene is a delight; a microcosm of life in Sandusky and demonstrates how much the world has changed in the years since he was king of the comb and dance floor at the local gay bar.

Delightful performances by Jennifer Coolidge (you know…who could forget Stifler’s mom from the classic American Pie?), who speaks volumes just by curling up her voluminous lips co-stars as Pat’s ex-protégé Dee Dee. The music also plays a starring role – both the recognizable groovy ’80’s tunes plus the haunting and lovely original music composed by Chris Stephens (brother of Todd).

Circling back to the chef metaphor, I can’t wait to see what Stephens is cooking up next. We’re all hungry for some well-told, tasty stories, and hopefully, this film is not a swan song for Kier. He proves, without a doubt that he’s not just another pretty face and can carry an entire film on his handsome shoulders. Swan Song is a delightful treat to be enjoyed by…just about anybody who has been on a road trip but never really left town.

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