In The Motel Life, two brothers — Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry (Stephen Dorff) —drift around Reno, scrabbling for cash and living in cheap motel rooms. The men are inseparable: As boys, they promised their mother before she died they would always be there for each other (their father had abandoned the family long before).
Frank, the older one, holds down a job and supports Jerry, who lost a leg during a train accident that also might have caused brain damage. At night, Frank makes up bedtime stories to lull Jerry to sleep — wild tales of adventure and sex and fantasy — that are depicted via funny, pornographic pencil animation by Mike Smith.
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In flashbacks, we learn Frank had a serious girlfriend (Dakota Fanning) who is no longer part of his life. The reason for their breakup isn’t revealed until late in the film, but what matters is that Frank never recovered from having his heart broken. He has resigned himself to a modest, melancholy existence, relying primarily on his love for his brother to give his life meaning.
But when Jerry accidentally kills a boy with his car and flees the scene, the two men are forced out of their complacent routine. The Motel Life, based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, was directed by real-life brothers Alan and Gabe Polsky, which helps explain why the bond between Frank and Jerry is so uncommonly deep and moving. Hirsch and Dorff, two actors often cast as acerbic characters, achieve a depth of emotional intimacy that makes you believe they’re real-life siblings. They are two men who have been beaten down by life but remain hopeful and optimistic, drawing on each other for the kind of strength only blood relatives can provide.
Unlike most pictures about people living on the fringe, The Motel Life is never drab or depressing. The movie constantly finds moments of touching beauty, from a stray dog Frank takes in to the colorful sketches Jerry draws to decorate the motel rooms the brothers live in. The movie is set in 1990 and incorporates a terrific sequence in which Frank makes a fateful bet on the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas match, which ended with one of the biggest upsets in sports history. That fight was huge and brutal: The Motel Life is small and delicate, but just as memorable.
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson.
Directors: Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky.
Screenwriters: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster. Based on the novel by Willy Vlautin.
Producers: Alan Polsky, Gabe Polsky, Ann Ruark.
A Tribeca Film release. Running time: 85 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 8 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood