Not every film that played at SXSW this year was fortunate enough to walk away with a distribution deal (in fact, very few did), but if there’s one movie that deserved to, it’s “A Bag of Hammers.” A relatively clichéd dramedy with all the markings of an indie film, Brian Crano’s directorial debut nonetheless manages to carve out an identity of its own thanks to a great script and an even better ensemble cast. Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig make an excellent team as childhood best friends Ben and Alan, a pair of misfit conmen who run a bogus valet service at funerals in order to steal cars and sell them for cash. It’s not the most lucrative career, but in addition to the money they earn from renting out the house in front of their laidback bachelor pad, they get by. But when their new tenants – the recently divorced Lynette (Carrie Preston of “True Blood”) and her neglected son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury) – begin to attract unwanted attention, Ben and Alan decide to step in and create the family they’ve always needed.
Consider Crano incredibly lucky for getting the actors that he did, because it’s hard to imagine “A Bag of Hammers” working quite as well without them. Sandvig and Ritter are especially good in the film’s more comedic moments, while even Rebecca Hall manages to make the most of a role that requires she wear a silly waffle hat and perform an ever sillier dance. The real standout, however, is Preston, who delivers what is easily the most heartbreaking performance that I’ve seen this year as the hopelessly desperate single mother. Additionally, while the constantly shifting tone between quirky comedy and grim family drama may annoy some people, Crano actually handles it remarkably well, particularly when the movie enters some pretty dark territory midway through the story and never looks back. It’s a shame that he didn’t see that version of the film through to the end, because while there’s nothing wrong with the happy ending he opts for, “A Bag of Hammers” would have been so much more memorable with the disheartening, more realistic finale that he teases just before it.