Aidan Smart and Brent Askari in “Nice People.” Photos courtesy of Mint Films

In covering the Maine film scene for the last decade or so, I’ve learned a few things. One is that a low-budget, no-stars local production generally needs a hook. Without being able to attract or afford recognizable faces, a Maine filmmaker is often best served by heading into a marketable genre, like horror, or by hanging their film on an easy-to-sell premise. Dramas are harder. Diffuse dramas that deal in ambiguity and the deadpan comedy of human behavior are hardest of all.

“Nice People,” a 90-minute comedy-drama from Maine-based writer-directors Ian Carlsen and Jeff Griecci is a tough sell, but I’m going to try anyway. The Maine-shot feature is having its Maine premiere at Portland’s Space on Thursday and Friday, and it’s not a film any Maine film fan should pass over in favor of something easier to munch down like so many Raisinets. (Not that Raisinets aren’t great, you just can’t live on them.)

As profiled in this column back in June when the film was heading out on the festival circuit, “Nice People” presents five interconnected stories of Mainers each coping with the everyday perils of simply being human. Speaking to the filmmakers at the time, I was struck by Carlsen’s evaluation of Mainers’ uniqueness of character. “There’s a quality Mainers possess where they feel the need to do something morally right and justified, but they don’t have the full perspective on what other people are bringing to the conversation,” opined the filmmaker, adding that that tension “can lead to comedy, and in some cases tragedy.”

Susan Clark and Tadin Brego in “Nice People.”

“Nice People” proves that, and that Griecci and Carlsen, both longtime Maine film scene fixtures, understand their fellow Mainers with an intimacy and affection more evocative than any local film I’ve ever seen. The film is actually five short films, each introduced with the names of the major players. “Val & Teddy” is about a formerly married couple (Brent Askari and Shannon Campbell), whose chummy tavern catchup about their shared son leads to an unexpected revelation about what the ex-husband does for cash. “Lesedi” follows a young Black woman (Lala Drew) as she and her white girlfriend navigate the process of renting an apartment, leading to a nearly unspoken fight about race. “Shane” sees an older man (William Paul Steele) trying to find the owner of the dead cat he’s accidentally run over, only to walk into a fraught family confrontation between transgender Shane (Ian-Meredyth Lindsey) and a worrisome visitor. “Jean” sees a suspicious aunt and idealistic teen (Grace Bauer and Maiya Kolosky) deciding whether or not to assist French-speaking Black man Jean (Titi De Baccarat), who appears to be attempting to sneak across the Canadian border. Concluding things are “Zed & Larry” (Tadin Brego and Michael Thomas Toth), two drinking buddies who have an especially bad day at the fish-processing plant where they both work.

Titi De Baccarat as “Jean.”

The films share a decidedly Maine-centric universe. A minor character from the first segment anchors “Jean,” while Jean himself turns up in “Lesedi,” performing a puppet show that briefly makes the troubled Lesedi smile. Names crop up around the margins of shared streets and watering holes, suggesting the fact that Maine is, for all its vastness, a pretty small town. The credits thank Howie’s Pub in Portland, Evelyn’s Tavern in South Portland, a store in Jackman, and a Commercial Street fish market. The people of “Nice People” drink, work and drive the same roads we do, and they feel uniformly akin to people we might meet in any of those places. The actors, culled from a who’s who of Maine talents (at least to those of us who follow the Maine movie scene) are pitch-perfect in their roles throughout. And they have to be. What Griecci and Carlsen are attempting is of the highest degree of difficulty.

The filmmakers have cited as inspiration a trio of filmmakers who traffic solely in the difficult – Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki. All three favor naturalistic, often ambiguous interactions among eccentric but low-key realistic characters, their films intentionally attuned to their own singular wavelengths. It’s a wavelength I’ve always been attuned to, but viewers expecting more traditionally “cinematic” narratives often tune out. “Nice People” aims not merely high but far, seeking to maintain a consistent tone through its intertwining narratives.


Lala Drew as Lesedi in “Nice People.”

It hits, almost unerringly. Askari and Campbell bring such obvious charm and affection to their restless exes that the near-miss reunion over Askari’s secret life tingles with life and humor. Lala Drew makes the perennially watchful Lesedi’s quick temper a potent depiction of being Black, and a woman, in a very white place. Steele’s unfortunate cat-killer is so doggedly decent that his unplanned involvement in a vulnerable stranger’s life comes across like an equally strange reward. De Baccarat’s Jean keeps his story to himself, leading to one of those ambiguous endings where the ordinariness of human misunderstanding seems headed for avoidable disaster. And while Tadin Brego shoulders a lot of white male angst as the grieving and lovesick Zed, Zed’s drunken quest for – something – is redeemed in satisfyingly unsatisfying fashion. It’s that kind of movie.

There’s a death, several reunions, lots of booze, some unexpected shocks and pleasures. It’s life in Maine, and “Nice People” is as warm in its embrace as it is merciless in showing how we, while doing our best, often fall flat on our faces. The film is shot beautifully and with an eye for its varied Maine locations, all without succumbing to mere travelogue. The dialogue is unforced and lived-in, and the stories are given time to build – and never quite end up where you imagined. “Nice People” relishes ambiguity, and trusts viewers to follow along. I followed. So should you.

“Nice People” is screening at Portland’s Space on Thursday and Friday. The 7 p.m. shows on both days sold out, but there were still tickets ($9, $7 Space members) available for a 3:30 p.m. matinee Friday as of last week, so be sure to grab yours now at for one of the best Maine-made films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. Griecci and Carlsen will present the film and answer questions. Keep an eye on their Mint Films website for upcoming screenings as well.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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