Dennis is a young man who lives out in the middle of the desert and spends most of his time bowling. But one day, on his way to the alley, he nearly runs over a tortoise in the road.
He takes up with the tortoise, bringing it with him his bowling games and marveling when he realizes the turtle can talk back to him. But with his ability to communicate, the tortoise begins to exert a negative influence over Dennis, endangering his friendships and possibly his own life.
Writer-director Stephen Cervantes has fashioned an offbeat dramedy about a uniquely shambolic search for self, and the ways it can go awry, even with the best of intentions.
The film has the eccentricity of a kinder, gentler Coen Brothers film — or even a more laidback take on a Jim Carrey comedy from the 90s — and its storytelling ambles from oddball moment to the next, sometimes luxuriating in its strangeness or even just the striking desert landscape, all captured with sun-bleached, careworn cinematography.
But this isn’t just a showpiece for surreality. The story is married to Dennis’s emotional journey, which is essentially the surfacing of a character’s fragile lack of autonomy and agency in his world, and his toxic attempts to regain it through aggression and dominance.
The tortoise, of course, is a symbol of Dennis’s inner voice — or most venomous impulses — come to life, and the comedic device is handled both with goofiness and surprising sincerity. When Dennis loses access to his inner voice, it’s a genuine tragedy for him — and yet another way his life has gone wrong. How he deals with this loss — and the surprisingly fount of support that reveals itself — is both genuine and wryly touching.
Like most comedies, “Tortoise” wants to be entertaining and seemingly silly in an effort to garner laughs. But in a world where it’s sometimes hard to be a better person, the film has genuine things to say about delusion and self-actualization — though you’ll never quite look at a reptile or amphibian in quite the same way again.