Movies about young people doing crazy things while at college have a long history, from Animal House to Revenge of the Nerds to Old School to Neighbors. As that list of four attests, fraternities (and sometimes sororities) are often the focus of such films, something that can still be funny, but can wind up feeling redundant. The new film Drunk Bus goes in a different direction, much to its benefit.
Every night, Michael (Charlie Tahan) drives a bus carrying drunk college kids around the campus of the fictional Kent Institute of Technology in Ohio. As if that thankless job isn’t depressing enough, he’s still obsessing about Amy (Sarah Mezzanotte), his ex-girlfriend who broke up with him nine months ago when she moved to New York City.
The craziness on the bus is usually low-level – singing, yelling, the occasional puking – but when Michael ends up with a black eye from one belligerent jerk, the college hires Pineapple (Pineapple Tangaroa) as a security guard. The Samoan looks the part, as he’s huge, bald, and has a face full of tattoos and piercings, but it’s his outlook on life that has more of an effect on Michael than any physical protection he provides.
Directed by Houston residents John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke and written by Chris Molinaro, the film has no big mission or message. In fact, very little in the way of plot takes place, but what it lacks in story it makes up for in a big way with characters. The bus has its share of regulars, including Michael’s friends Kat (Kara Hayward) and Justin (Tonatiuh), and FU Bob (Martin Pfefferkorn), an old man in an electric wheelchair whom Michael picks up every night, only to be thanked with the more colorful version of “FU.”
Everybody that Michael encounters, along with a renewed text message correspondence with Amy, plays a part in him reevaluating his purpose in life. Again, there’s nothing profound in the changes that he considers, but the way they’re presented make them feel deeper than they are. The filmmakers also do a great job of making the film fun without delving into out-and-out stupidity, a fine line that they tread well throughout.
We rarely see Michael anywhere but on the bus or in his apartment, but the film never feels claustrophobic. The addition of Pineapple broadens the film’s scope in many ways even while the story retains its intimacy. The bond that they create in their nightly journeys is a joy to watch, even as it goes down some awkward roads.
Casting is key for a small film like this, and they hit the mark with all the main roles. Tahan has already impressed in a supporting role on Netflix’s Ozark, but he shows real leading-man potential here. Tangaroa seems like he was hired for his intimidating looks, but he’s a good actor who plays this particular part very well. Hayward, who’s been in films like Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs, and Us, brings a lot of polish to her relatively small role, while Tonatiuh, Mezzanotte, and Pfefferkorn make the most of their time on screen.
Drunk Bus doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but its concept is a breath of fresh air for a genre that can sometimes feel a bit stale. It’s the type of film that can be a launch pad for everybody involved; I can’t wait to see what each of them does next.
Drunk Bus is available on video on demand.