The indie drama Ringolevio draws its name from an obscure game that originated in the streets of New York City in the late 19th century. Similar to games like tag and capture the flag, the rules are fairly easy to pick up on, but can still seem daunting when you’re the only one who isn’t familiar with them. Visiting a new partner’s family for the first time can be filled with hundreds of little moments like these, where everyone else shares a common language that leaves you feeling isolated, or even like you don’t belong.
Ringolevio revolves around one such trip, walking us through the seemingly high-stakes but ultimately low-drama experience of watching someone you love interacting with a whole new set of people with whom they share a completely different relationship. It’s a nerve-wracking process that forces you to try to fit in, even when you’re not sure you really want to.
Ada (Nicole Velasco Lockard) is a shy young woman with a penchant for collecting bugs. Ada’s girlfriend Marissa (Meredith Johnston), an outgoing and free-spirited musician, brings Ada home to rural Wisconsin to meet the family for the first time over Easter weekend. The family in question consists of the three brothers who helped raise Marissa: Ozzie (Joshua Koopman), the surrogate father-figure; Arthur (Cory Hardin), the quiet, sensitive type; and Wren (Zachary Krueger), the wild, alcoholic troublemaker. Together, the boys are the sort of loud, boisterous group of barely grownups who find mooning your car to be the most appropriate way to greet a new guest. Despite being a bit overwhelmingly rambunctious and juvenile, they are initially very welcoming and inviting to Ada. However, she quickly starts to feel out of place when the family invites her to play a round of their favorite childhood game, Ringolevio, and her ineptitude at the game results in Marissa falling and cutting her leg. Over the next few days, more of these family traditions continue to stymie Ada, from her first game of poker to the breakfast-dessert “kringle.” She does her best to go with the flow and become a part of the group, even as she is consistently left with the feeling that she simply doesn’t belong.
Ada’s sense of isolation only increases as she gets to know the boys more and finds that many of their “family traditions” are insensitive, controlling, or downright abusive to Marissa. When she is injured during the game, her brothers insist she doesn’t need to go to the hospital. When they leave for work, they lock the girls out of the house as a joke. They plan pranks against their sister like throwing wet towels on her bed while’s she’s sleeping, or pulling out an old CD of her early songs so they can belittle them, even as she grows visibly upset by the teasing. They never see her discomfort, though, because they know she can take it. As Ozzie explains when he interrupts Ada’s bathroom time to hop in the shower, Marissa is tough because they raised her to be tough. Ozzie sees their cruelty as a form of protection. They wouldn’t let her be weak. Despite Ada’s misgivings about this behavior – much less having to share a bathroom with a stranger while she’s trying to pee – she knows that Marissa loves her family even when they make her angry, and Ada continues to do her best to fit in to the hostile environment.
Filmed on a shoestring budget with a truncated two week shooting schedule, the film does a lot with its limited resources. Thanks to a talented young cast, Writer/Director Kristin Peterson’s dialogue always feels fluid and natural. The siblings radiate energy and mischief when they play with each other, and the girls move fluidly between cute, coupley moments and uncomfortable relationship talks, sometimes within a single scene. Whether they’re the boys are running around trying to mend their sister’s leg or the girls let their sex devolve into a passive-aggressive fight, each scene is imbued with a raw realism that carries it through.
Where the film suffers is with its story. As interesting and genuine as many of the individual scenes can be, they don’t really add up to a satisfying narrative. Instead, they tend to fall into a repetitive cycle in which the boys act badly, the girls feel things about it, and very little is ever done challenge, change, or even escalate things. Ada and Marissa have a few awkward conversations here and there, but for the most part, Marissa represses her feelings about the accustomed behavior of her siblings, and Ada continues trying to find her place as part of the group. Ultimately, the story never amounts to much more than “a girl tries to fit in with some jerks, feels uncomfortable, then goes home.” While the low-stakes drama definitely has an air of realism to it, the absence of a satisfying story make it hard for the individual scenes to maintain enough cohesiveness to sustain an entire feature.
Verdict: 2 out of 5 stars
At its best, Ringolevio is an impressive achievement of guerilla filmmaking. Consistently strong performances and realistic dialogue go a long way toward overcoming the technical limitations of the film’s budget. The film sets out to explore some interesting themes, from the struggle to belong to the experience of being female in a hyper-masculine space, but a repetitive and low-energy story keeps those themes from ever really amounting to much. The film will appeal to anyone who enjoys lo-fi character studies or is interested in the potential of low-budget filmmaking, but will likely fall flat with wider audiences.