With his thick mop of curly black hair, his eclectic, thrift-store wardrobe and a handlebar mustache that would make Rollie Fingers proud, Richard (Richard Vallejos) stands out in a crowd. He's mild-mannered and unfailingly polite, but in the presence of others, he seems ill at ease. It's playing with Etienne, his beloved dwarf hamster, that makes Richard most comfortable.
Naturally, Richard is heartbroken to learn Etienne has terminal cancer. A friend casually offers to buy him a new hamster when Etienne dies. It's a generous offer, made with the best of intentions, but hardly soothing to a grieving pet owner.
The veterinarian suggests euthanasia, but Richard, uncomfortable with the idea, opts for a trip down the California coast instead, so Etienne can see the world before he dies.
If that makes writer-director Jeff Mizushima's Etienne! sound a bit precious, think again. Richard's odyssey, which begins in San Francisco and was shot on location, is an oddly touching awakening for our melancholy hero, who meets a kindred spirit in an obsessive dog lover (Vito Razi) and enjoys the hospitality of two traveling musicians (Great Northern's Solon Bixler and Rachel Stolte). Yet it's only after an tantalizingly brief encounter with Elodie (Megan Harvey), a fellow lonely spirit fleeing from a troubled relationship, that Richard truly finds peace.
Etienne! is a movie that takes its characters seriously, refusing to trivialize or mock Richard's boundless devotion. That's part of its charm. It is also a movie that finds profound beauty in its quieter moments, making Mizushima's next feature an appealing prospect indeed.
Etienne!, which helps close out the Cinema by the Bay film series tonight, will screen tonight at the Clay Theatre. For a full schedule of events, or to buy tickets, click here.