“In layman’s terms, I got Friend Zoned,” Terence Nance announces late into An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, summing up in seven words this rambunctious multimedia kaleidoscope of missed connections and unrequited affection. Audacious, playful and sometimes quite sad, it’s also beyond self-indulgent and wears a little thin over the long haul. But still, what a dazzling debut.
The title itself is something of a hoot, as there’s nothing oversimplified about this picture. It’s expanded from an autobiographical short film called How Would You Feel? that Nance made in 2010 as a devotional object for his dreamgirl (Namik Minter, whose name is redacted in the copious onscreen text, but cheerfully plays herself all the same). They’re friends without benefits, and Nance longs for so much more, bemoaning her “serious committed relationship” while yearning his way through lonely nights and the hand-to-mouth grind of a struggling artist, eking out a meager living as a subway busker.
Narrated in hilariously stentorian tones by The Wire’s Reg E. Cathey (who, perhaps more importantly, played Dirty Dee in Pootie Tang), the second-person verse attains the qualities of an incantation, painstakingly listing the reasons that “you” are not worthy of her. We begin by watching the original short, which is then periodically stopped and ejected like a VHS tape as Nance layers on the documentary and animated asides, reflexively commenting on the form and busting a gut when he’s not breaking your heart.
The most visually adventurous movie I’ve seen in years, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty never once settles for a conventional scene. Hell, it never settles for a conventional shot. The freeze-frames, backwards motion, flow-charts, flying text and squiggly overlays would probably be exhausting were they not all synced to such a melancholy groove. Namik’s the one that got away, glimpsed mainly in fragments of her face as her attentions remain elusive.
My favorite image arrives during one of the cartoon interludes, as chunks of Nance’s massive, magisterial afro break off and drift up to the sky, transforming into storm clouds that suddenly rain to accompany his crying. As far as self-pitying self-portraits go, that’s aces.
I honestly could have done without the extra meta-level of Minter’s videotaped reactions at a How Would You Feel? screening, but given the seemingly limitless creative energy here, it’s hard to fault Nance for throwing in everything, including the kitchen sink. I can’t wait to see what he does next.