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Michael Angelo Covino's "The Climb" opens with an incredibly funny setup that could be ripped right out of an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but injected with a healthy dose of pathos and sincerity. It's a long, one-take argument between two best friends, Mike (Covino) and Kyle (Kyle Marvin), wherein Mike confesses to sleeping with Kyle's fiancee, Ava (Judith Godreche), right as Kyle is opining about how excited he is to marry her. Oh, and also: They're on bikes, struggling up a hill in France.

The sequence makes up Covino's 2018 short film "The Climb," also written by and starring Covino and Marvin, who co-wrote the feature in addition to costarring. It is also the essence of what this film is: wryly funny but deeply felt, a brilliantly written, performed and executed moment of unflinching and intimate truth between two men, at once devastating and hilarious.

Those raw moments of truth-telling are what "The Climb" seeks to excavate in this tale of a lifelong friendship, which becomes a surprisingly sweet love story, given where we start out, and the bumps in the road they endure along the way.

The passing years are structured into seven chapters with cryptic titles like "Thanks" and "Fine." The film is constructed with incredibly long shots, intricately crafted sequences of dialogue and performance peppered with usually amusing reveals along the way. These scenes are almost theatrical with their contiguous sense of time, but cinematic in their geographic creation. The camera penetrates space and elasticizes time, establishing a sense of propulsive flow within each chapter, relentlessly building to an intense crescendo before smash-cutting away at the height of tension.

There's a mischievous sense of self-reflective play within this push and pull rhythm, weaving a funeral hymn into a basement striptease of Shawn Mullins' "Lullaby" (performed enthusiastically by Marvin); a disastrous holiday meltdown slams into archival footage of dancing skiers set to a soundtrack of retro French pop.

It's clear Covino has studied his 20th century European cinema, creating a postmodern American indie that moves like a Russian art film and sounds like the French New Wave. All of this style is in service of a story about two friends who love each other very much, in spite of who they are, what they've done, and the women who come between them. Speaking of said women, Gayle Rankin just about steals the show from Covino and Angelo, with a fierce, captivating performance as Kyle's controlling high school girlfriend Marissa.

In another brilliant, norm-upending sequence, Mike bursts into a wedding chapel to object to Kyle's union, to tell his friend, whom he's betrayed and let down time and again, that he deserves to be loved the way he unconditionally loves others. It's a beautiful, vulnerable gift that Mike drags out from himself, the closest admission of fault he'll cop to, though you'll never guess how that scene will end, like every chapter in this odyssey. But at the heart of the matter, it's simple. Although Mike's a selfish jerk and Kyle selfless to a fault, and they fall, again, and again, they always find it within themselves to get back on the bike and ride, and that is a relationship, and a film, worth celebrating.


'THE CLIMB'

4 stars

Cast: Michael Angelo Covino, Kyle Marvin, Judith Godreche, Gayle Rankin, Talia Balsam, George Wendt.

Directed by Michael Angelo Covino.

Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.

Rated R for language, sexual content, some nudity and brief drug use.

In theaters Friday


(c)2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC


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