OK, Good is a clever, funny and disturbing little burst of American angst in the form of an ultra-low-budget narrative feature that screened in Sydney Film Festival‘s Freak Me Out section (which covers much more adventurous and experimental territory than just schlock and horror, in case you hadn’t noticed). Credit programmer Richard Kuipers for once again bringing a rough-hewn gem (unclassifiable, unmarketable) to big screens here when it would never have had a chance otherwise.

OK, Good is a flawed overachiever but is, well, pretty damned good. (There’s my mandatory riff on the title.) Its best and most striking quality is its almost complete lack of conventional storytelling. There’s only one real character, a dogged but pathetically unremarkable actor named Paul Kaplan, played by co-writer and co-producer Hugo Armstrong. (Director Daniel Martinico also co-wrote and co-produced; one gets the feeling there wasn’t much more crew than the two of them.) The narrative is primarily a montage of audition tapes: we watch as Paul tries out for an endless string of inane local TV commercials for pet food, travel insurance, barbecue sauce. The tape rolls through Paul’s many awkward miscues, with variously oily or unimpressed producers prompting him offscreen. Viewed through such a lens, in this passive-aggressive world of feigned enthusiasm, Paul’s pent-up frustration becomes frighteningly apparent.

It’s obvious Paul is going nowhere. He’s a big, awkward bloke in his mid-30s; he comes across like a loner from a small town somewhere who got the acting bug late in life and just arrived in LA, only to flounder at the lowest, most degrading level of the industry. These cringe-inducing “performances” are intercut with scenes of Paul’s dreary life. He seems to do nothing but rehearse alone in his cheaply furnished apartment, drive to the next audition while listening to self-help tapes, and engage in an ongoing struggle with the local print shop after they bungle his order for headshots. The strength of the film lies in the minimalist way it sketches the grind: audition, workshop, rehearsal, audition, ramen noodles for dinner, audition, audition, workshop. After a while the repetition becomes hypnotic. We barely see the outside world, never see a human interaction that isn’t forced or artificial. Especially memorable are the glimpses of the dubious acting workshop – part improv, part primal-scream therapy. Participants are by turns obliged to scream insults at each other, act out childish fantasies of terror and pain, or roll around on the floor, pulling faces and making animalistic noises. There’s much hilarity in all of this, but it’s also undeniably creepy (especially on a big screen).

The microscopically small budget is obviously part of the aesthetic – the “narrative” scenes are shot as if they were a continuation of the audition tapes, long takes of static video, so we get the sense of seeing Paul’s life under surveillance. This verité quality belies the spooky brilliance of Armstrong’s performance (which has a queasy sense of being based on hard experience). The jarring staccato rhythm of the editing wrenches a hell of a lot of suspense out of the suffocating routine, as Paul slowly and haplessly slides towards some kind of breakdown.

Halfway through I had the feeling I was witnessing some kind of contemporary existentialist classic. Unfortunately Martinico and Armstrong can’t seem to sustain the atmosphere. The confrontation with the print shop workers, the film’s sole forays into actual dialogue, are decidedly average, coming across like a TV skit or, I hate to say it, a student film. Though the prosumer-quality cinematography is often sneakily quite good, the uneven look and texture of the film starts to wear thin. When the big meltdown finally comes, it’s loopy, destructive and very entertaining – but it’s somehow also anticlimactic, the cinematic equivalent of empty calories. The film might have been a lot more powerful if it had stuck with the monotonous pattern of the audition tapes (by far the strongest “scenes”) right through to the end.

Disappointment aside, OK, Good is not easily forgotten. Independent filmmakers should marvel at how much Martinico and Armstrong have achieved with how little. (Actors might want to seek inspiration elsewhere.)