Amber Benson’s Chance — which she wrote, produced and directed as well as playing the lead — is more than just a curiosity for Buffy fans who loved her work as the stammering witch Tara. (James “Spike” Marsters has the second lead, and the cast is full of Whedonverse actors.) It’s an intriguing indie film with a surprisingly unsentimental sensibility, sharply written and smoothly directed. Is there anything Benson can’t do? Well, yes, unfortunately — getting her work seen by more people. If there’s a logical reason this has yet to find a distributor while puerile crap gets released by major studios every weekend, I’d love to hear it.
Benson plays Chance, an embittered product of New Agey parents. Rather than rebelling politically like her brother Zero (who went Republican and became a stockbroker), she has opted for apathetic slackerdom. Her roommate Simon (Marsters, probably shooting this between episodes of Angel or Buffy — he has exactly the same peroxided look, and sometimes a trace of his Spike accent peeks out) is obsessed with time. Her mother (Christine Estabrook) has just dumped her dad (Jeff Ricketts) for taking up with his bimbo secretary (Lara Boyd Rhodes in a role once played by Emma “Anya” Caulfield, who filmed one scene that accidentally got taped over and then couldn’t return to reshoot). Life sucks. Men suck. Women suck. Death sucks, too — Simon comes home to find an apparent O.D. victim (Tressa DiFiglia, who in real life is married to Nicholas “Xander” Brendon) in Chance’s bed.
As in There’s Something About Mary, a guy with a guitar (here it’s Grant Langston, singing his own compositions as well as one written by Joss Whedon) shows up every so often to comment musically and morosely on matters of love. Chance addresses the camera a lot, giving the film an off-off-Broadway feel; Chance could be gainfully adapted as a stage play. I honestly don’t know how the movie will play for non-Buffy fans, since a good amount of the film’s appeal to me was in watching Benson and Marsters play so strongly against their Buffy personae. (Spike would consider Simon a wanker, and Chance would find Tara tedious.) But I’d guess anyone who appreciates resolutely un-Hollywood narrative wouldn’t regret the 75 minutes.
Probably only a down-to-earth actress like Amber Benson could get away with writing dialogue in which someone calls her character “beautiful” and “amazing.” Benson undercuts this by making herself look hapless and goofy whenever possible (and James Marsters is eligible for some kind of good-sport award for playing a couple of scenes wearing an ugly dress). Like many well-rounded characters, Chance is accessible and enjoyable without being “likable,” whatever that word means — she’s realistically self-absorbed and flawed. When writers of fan fiction transparently put idealized versions of themselves into their stories, those characters are disdainfully called Mary Sues. Benson kind of makes herself an anti-Mary Sue here. I really hadn’t seen her in anything other than Buffy, so it was refreshing to see her much less kind and gentle here, drinking and smoking and partying and swearing up a storm.
If nothing else, Chance is a great calling card to break Benson, Marsters, and their fellow Buffy vets (including Angel‘s Andy Hallett as a gay singer Chance gets her hopes up about) out of the Whedonverse typecasting. Benson’s more famous sisters haven’t done as well on that score: Sarah Michelle Gellar continues to do teen-targeted supernatural stuff, Alyson Hannigan lost a lot of good will with Date Movie, and Charisma Carpenter hasn’t stretched much beyond her two-show run as Cordelia. Amber Benson is writing comics, cowriting novels, and writing/directing little indie flicks that cost about as much as the catering budget for a week on one of Gellar’s films. Benson, I think, is going to be the one to keep an eye on.
Chance deserves better than the oblivion the marketplace has consigned it to. Unfortunately, you can’t even give it a day in court from Blockbuster or Netflix, since it doesn’t have a distributor. Fans of Benson could get it from her website directly by ordering an autographed poster or photo (for $45), but that’s a bit of a steep investment for those not yet acquainted with Benson’s charms. Here’s hoping it can get a more conventional mode of distribution soon.