By K. Krombie (Queens, New York, U.S.)
In Billboard, cartoonist Casey Lindeweiler (John Robinson) inherits his deceased father’s radio station, WTYT 960, only to discover that it’s on the verge of bankruptcy. He devises a Billboard-sitting contest in a desperate effort to “save the only independent radio station in Lehigh Valley” – in which four contestants must live on a catwalk built in front of the WTYT billboard until the last person left sitting wins a mobile home and $96,000. Lindeweiler’s staff follow their leader with wavering levels of enthusiasm, while the ongoing publicity and controversy around the contest succeeds in raising the station’s ratings. As the competition progresses, however, Lindeweiler suffers professionally and personally from a lack of permit permissions, a misunderstanding that adds an extra zero to the prize money, and accusations of exploitation. Meanwhile, rival radio station WXEN attempt sabotage at every opportunity.
As endurance contests go, the one presented in Billboard is more of a perennial flatline than the stamina challenge of say, They Shoot Horses Don’t They or The Hunger Games. As for the contestants, the usual fame hungry reality TV/radio suspects are absent here. This lot are genuinely broke and therefore justly game for hibernating out in the open for lodgings and lucre. Out of the four, only Josh (Michael Fegley), a mouthy lout lacking bathroom etiquette, displays anything beyond a passive mugshot expression and the nighttime shivers.
Writer and director Zeke Zelker has created what he calls a cine•experience with its own special dot. His multimedia production includes a website that mimics the WTYT radio station and a web series called The Billboard Sitters. Based solely on the film, the impetus for keeping up with the contestants’ twenty-five webisodes is fleeting.
Eric Roberts, who plays WXEN boss Rick, is an alluring presence and a boundless film industry mushroom, as in he just keeps popping up. Billboard lead Robinson, whose Casey Lindeweiler character sounds like a Bavarian dance-off, is natural and understated, as are his castmates (among them, Heather Matarazzo and Leo Fitzpatrick, memorable still from their performances in nineties teen flicks Welcome to the Dollhouse and Kids, respectively), but the drama stakes could have benefited from Zelker energizing his troops. Lindeweiler’s mounting list of challenges have every right to fill ninety minutes, but Billboard suffers from too many hollow pieces. A mutual attraction is hinted at between Lindeweiler and WTYT sales and marketing staff member Henry (Alice Wills), who is supportive of his initiative and empathetic even when his increasing steadfastness alienates both friends and foes. A closer bond between these characters might have filled one or two of the film’s hollows.
Zelker intends to make further films in his native Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley area. Though this Pennsylvania region may not present anything quite like the unique freak haven of John Waters’ Baltimore, Billboard, conceived of twenty years ago and based upon a similar radio contest that Zelker remembers from his youth, has a plod-along pace that fits the setting. It’s not a bad film, but what should be dramatic peaks are flattened in advance by an idea that hasn’t been fully realized outside of Zelker’s imagination. Billboard is sweet-natured and well-intentioned, but just not very exciting.