2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: In a time where toxic masculinity is a frequent – and necessary – topic, along comes “Paddleton,” a film that celebrates non-toxic male friendship.

Mark Duplass and Ray Romano star in this charming story about two men who became friends almost by default years ago when they became neighbors. Duplass is Michael and Romano is Andy. Their incidental friendship has spanned years as these two bachelors have very little interest in allowing anyone else in their lives. They spend their free time playing video games, making homemade pizza, and watching their favorite movie, “Death Punch.” They also spend a lot of time playing their made-up game, Paddleton.

The story picks up as Michael receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and has to make end of life plans. What follows is a tale of accepting and coping in this buddy film that is as much drama as comedy. The two friends continue living their day to day, arguing the way boys do, sometimes burning the pizza. An eventual and inevitable road trip provides further insight into their characters, and into the heart of their friendship. They need each other, even if neither is willing to say that out loud.

Both Duplass and Romano provide some of their best work here. Romano channels the Concerned Dad he displayed so well in “The Big Sick.” In “Paddleton,” though, things take a much different course and Romano isn’t a father, or even really a father figure. Instead, he is a man who hates small talk, who loves to discuss unanswerable philosophical topics, and who is content with a quiet life. He is funny and believable, the kind of guy who puts up walls and is hard to talk to, but interesting once you get to know him.

Duplass’ Michael is more open and friendly than Andy, but equally content to stay in rather than go out. His journey is an emotional one, as he is forced to come to terms with a terminal diagnosis, and to make incredibly difficult and painful decisions on his own. In particular, one scene near the end gives Duplass the opportunity to display raw emotion in a way we have never seen from him before.

In addition to starring in “Paddleton,” Duplass co-writes with director Alex Lehmann. They infuse their script with a perfect blend of humor and heart. They create in Michael and Andy two men that are in many ways still only boys. Boys with jobs instead of school, and the luxury of no curfews. One of the more interesting choices Lehmann and Duplass make is to avoid a lot of unnecessary detail about either man’s past. We get a glimpse of Michael’s history, but very little from Andy. Where many writers tend to want to provide a lot of answers, they wisely focus on the present.

Another strength of the script and the performances is that even when things get sad, they never swerve too far into depressing. This isn’t a film that tries to manipulate the viewer into tears. It simply asks you to feel, in whatever way is natural.

“Paddleton” is a film full love, laughter, tears, and hope. It celebrates male friendship and masculinity and serves as a welcome reminder that those aren’t inherently bad things.

“Paddleton” is produced and distributed by Netflix and will be available to stream on Feb. 22.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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