A youngish orderly prowls the halls of a retirement facility. Clearly less than delighted to be there, he's usually late for work; often, he hasn't bothered to shave. And every now and then, he breaks up the monotony of his day by sneaking outside to partake in a healing hit of weed.
The pitch for Harold & Kumar Go to the Home, mayhap? Not by half; yet Assisted Living isn't quite the humanistic epiphany it fancies itself, either.
In this short (78 minutes) tragicomedy, slacker-in-scrubs Todd (Michael Bonsignore) dawdles along the divide between blithe unconcern and undisciplined warm fuzzies. On the one hand, we know Todd's inferior work habits are digging him a hole: The movie is framed by mock interviews with his co-workers, who recall the mounting infractions that ultimately got him fired. On the other hand, this feature-length flashback to Todd's days of floor-mopping servitude shows that, in terms of pure empathy, he might be better equipped than anyone on the premises to care for their aged charges.
Or not. There's always the chance that pure mischief is what's driving Todd to grab an open phone extension and tell the gullible retirees that he's their concerned relatives calling from heaven. But even if it's just a goof, the oldsters seem enriched and that's better treatment than they're getting from the other staffers, whose only professional tools are grinning patronization and banal recreation-hour games. Todd seems to be a chronic underachiever, but he's no phony; his underlying sincerity comes out when he's swept into the sad affairs of Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley) a dementia case left pining for a son who's seemingly abandoned her.
The movie, which earned writer/director Elliot Greenebaum a grand jury prize at Slamdance, excels at defining the emotional parameters of the Todd/Pearlman relationship, which reaches its dramatic apotheosis in a heart-rending rendition of one of Todd's patented telephonic exchanges. But in other ways, the film is deliberately vague. We're offered no complete picture of who Todd is, how he's arrived at this juncture in his life and how much any of it genuinely means to him. (A subplot about an escaped pet dog is particularly ill-defined, declining to specify if Todd's role in the incident is as emancipator or sadist.)
Greenebaum plasters over the narrative gaps with atmospherics, limning the rest-home environment through a drowsy, narcotized haze that perfectly captures the residents' torpor and further frustrates our own attempts to become directly involved the story. Amid the pervasive languor, moments of cognitive clarity peek through only briefly and intermittently. Watching the movie is like conducting a conversation with a loved one stricken by Alzheimer's: It's at once moving and maddening.