Underneath the deadpan quips is a touching story of friendship.
The Climb has one of the best opening scenes in recent memory. Two lifelong friends, Michael (Michael Angelo Covino) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin) are out riding bikes, Michael clearly in better shape and handling the ride better. Kyle is due to be married soon and Michael is the best man. As the two navigate the road in front of them, Michael confesses to sleeping with Kyle’s fiancée. The scene ends with a bout of road rage and Kyle getting beat up. It’s hilarious. As a vignette, it’s immaculate in its construction and execution, as funny and searing a portrait of a rocky friendship as you’ll ever see. What follows is a series of scenes that jump around in time, anchored by the trajectory of Michael and Kyle’s relationship. The Climb is incisive, hilarious, and completely absurd. Consider it in the ballpark of something like The Foot Fist Way or The Art of Self-Defense or the tragi-comic works of Jim Cummings.
At the heart of the story is the question, “how do you salvage a toxic friendship”? Kyle is a bit of a beta male. He’s easy-going, avoids conflict, and kind of a push over. Michael, on the other hand, covers his raging insecurities with a thin layer of false bravado that gets him into more trouble than he can handle. The story follows the pair over the course of a few years, maybe close to a decade. Nearly every scene ends with Michael doing something that would end a normal friendship. In fact, I spent large chunks of The Climb wondering why these guys would remain friends. Why can’t Kyle see that his life would be better off without Michael around? The solution seemed clear to me. That is, until the film reminded me that life doesn’t always make sense and sometimes the people that keep hanging around in your orbit are there for a reason. Or maybe both guys are so damaged that they can’t function without the other in their lives. It seemed to me that Michael needs Kyle more than vice versa. By the end I realized how wrong I was and that these two balance each other out in their unique way.
The thing that separates The Climb from its antecedents is the caliber of the filmmaking. This is the first feature as director for Covino, but there’s a confidence onscreen that belies that feature debut status. He and Marvin collaborated on the screenplay and the duo have such great chemistry that their mind-meld is obvious and rich. Whether they’re trading lines or awkward silences, they’re in tune with each other in a way that is hard to look away from. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein and editor Sara Shaw are the movie’s stealth MVPs. Kuperstein’s work is fluid, favoring long takes and tracking shots that enhance the story without being ostentatious. Shaw makes everything feel of a piece, smoothing over the jarring nature of jumping years ahead at a time.
Of the many memorable moments in the film, there’s a scene I haven’t been able to shake. It takes place at a funeral and one of the grieving attendees wants to do the stereotypical move of scooping a shovelful of dirt on the casket. But a groundskeeper steps in to stop the gesture and explains why he can’t allow it by saying, “this is a union funeral.” This movie lives in the alchemy of everyday silliness and life’s more dramatic moments. Everything is hilarious and everything is sad in the world of The Climb, and it’s not far off from the absurdity of real life. Whether it’s a benign family gathering, a bachelor party, a wedding, or another one of life’s mile markers, Covino and Marvin repeatedly find ways to simultaneously break these characters down and bond them together even tighter.
By the end we aren’t left wondering why these guys would still be friends. My initial question was wrong. Is it possible for these guys to function independently of each other? Maybe, but why would they want to? It’s one of life’s oldest truisms that you can’t have the highs without the lows. The Climb painstakingly charts Kyle and Michael at their relationship’s lowest moments, but also takes the time to show that the climb through the tough times is what makes a relationship worth it in the end.
The Climb is available on blu-ray, DVD, and VOD