Being sober in a sea of drunk people is a horrible feeling. The raucous excitement, slurred enthusiasm and general lack of control that partiers have is all the more obnoxious to someone who’s not inebriated themselves. It’s made even more laborious, however, when you are in some way responsible for their wellbeing.

It’s a task that Michael (Charlie Tahan) must face nightly as driver of the ‘drunk bus’, the public transport that loops around the campus of a small college town in Ohio late at night. A recent graduate himself, he’s significantly younger than the other drivers, and has accepted the grinding halt his life has assumed since his long-term girlfriend dumped him and moved to New York some nine months prior. Through the regular appearances of friendly students, a belligerent old man, and a huge tattooed Samaon named Pineapple (Pineapple Tangoroa), Michael (nicknamed Fuckchop) must find his own self-worth and sense of purpose. But while his journey is not devoid of humour and charm, it feels like Drunk Bus’ drama is being stretched too thin to fully enjoy the catharsis of Michael breaking free of his static life.

While the screenplay was penned solely to Chris Molinaro, he and co-directors John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke share a story credit, and the opening titles tell us Drunk Bus is “inspired by real shit.” While the exact details of the film’s inspiration are unclear, there’s an undeniable authenticity to the characters we meet. The film’s outlandish title doesn’t indicate how low-key the story is. Michael’s life is one of repetition, of inane drudgery, he can predict the exact moments trains will whistle on his route and knows what his regular passengers are thinking. 

While we’re grounded in the stasis of Michael’s life, directors Carlucci and LaGanke aren’t afraid of elevating the character story with bizarre, broad comedic beats. Set in 2006, there are moments when the film feels like it’s commenting on the wave of gross-out comedies that were released in the early noughties, but here they’re executed with a weirder, darker vibe. Wacky things happen to completely unremarkable people, and they have to deal with them on a daily basis.

For many, campus is a site haunted by embarrassment. While Michael’s discomfort at still residing in his lifeless alma mater town is clear, there’s never really a strong sense of what life was like for Michael at college, outside of a few glimpses of his life with his girlfriend Amy (Sarah Mezzanotte). It’s not until Michael is assigned security on his bus (in the form of Pineapple) that things take a turn for the interesting. Injecting Michael’s life with a healthy dose of fun and weirdness, Pineapple gives a much needed spurt of energy to a slightly flat first act. He has great momentary gags, understands the psyche of the bus’ troublemakers, and helps unite the Drunk Bus’ regulars into a charming crew. Even when he awkwardly starts an impromptu dance party on the bus, it’s so stupid and contrived that it goes all the way back around to funny again. His backstory is hinted at from the mouths of multiple unreliable narrators, keeping the details of his characterisation slightly obscured, but Michael’s own story can’t help but feel a little stale and one-note in comparison.

As Drunk Bus slowly rolls forward, you catch yourself asking, What’s keeping Michael in this tedious life? Him having depression is alluded to, but it’s not explored in any significant depth for it to be the film’s central theme. His break-up has left him in an obvious stasis, and working a dead-end job in your college town would strike many audience members as a horror story. 

But while the moment of breaking free is inevitably rewarding, the longevity of the drama is questionable. There are few tangible indicators of change happening in our protagonist, we can’t mark the clear turning points that point him towards new horizons. Once we’ve set up our cast of characters, we meander around in a series of clumsy and staggered plot points. Drunk Bus makes us invested in our band of heroes but lacks the narrative tightness or energy to keep us engaged.

It’s frustrating how much of a mixed bag the film ends up being. For every strong sequence, there’s a tedious one. At one point, Michael overhears an unknown passenger alluding to a past betrayal, but can’t muster up the courage to confront them about it. The bus is his fortress, where none of his insecurities can get at him, and yet the past comes swimming up to provoke him, pushing him to take action. 

But the impact of this would be felt more powerfully if we didn’t spend a drawn-out scene with an eclectic drug dealer that lacked both dramatic tension and humour. It’s not that Drunk Bus’ runtime needed to be trimmed, but the screenplay should have been refocused and streamlined. The point of Michael’s journey is him finding the ability to take action, but there are ways to dramatise this without it feeling quite so boring.

Drunk Bus has a terrific title, a likeable ensemble and notable moments of compelling character growth, but as a whole it stumbles a few times too often to be a complete success. Unfortunately, it feels more like a hangover than the fun ride a drunken night out should be.

Rating: ★★½

Drunk Bus Debuts May 21, 2021 in Theatres + VOD