Unlovable (USA, 2018) [CAAMFest 2018]

Joy (Charlene deGuzman) is an intimacy addict, struck with self esteem so low that no level of personal affection can satisfy her. After losing her job, her boyfriend and her apartment in one disastrous sequence of events, Joy enters a 12-step rehabilitation program with the help of her reluctant sponsor Maddie (Melissa Leo). Holed up in a guest house for 30 days, Joy is given strict instructions to refrain from all love and sex and to never speak to Maddie’s brother Jim (John Hawkes) who cares for his and Maddie’s grandmother in the main house.

Suzi Yoonessi’s comedy-drama Unlovable is a sadly mediocre experience. While it has merit, and some strong performances, as a total package the film indulges in a sort of weak blend of self-conscious independent movie and social issues-based movie-of-the-week. Parts of the film seem rather trite. Others glimmer with inventiveness. The majority are simply boring, going through a rote rehab storyline without finding its own strong hook or specific angle of insight. There have been too many films about people learning to live with their addictions, and without finding that new angle any film in the genre is going to flounder. That is precisely what happens here.

This failure on the film’s part feels slightly awkward since its screenplay is based on star deGuzman’s own experience. ‘Drama is life with the dull bits cut out,’ Alfred Hitchcock once famously claimed. Unlovable simply feels like life. There is no doubt that Joy’s experiences ring true, but they are not very interesting to watch.

If anything, Joy feels rather like the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope that continues to plague Hollywood. She’s perky, aggressively cute and sweet, sexually active – pretty much a perfectly packaged stereotype. In playing the role, deGuzman never quite manages to find a route out of the cliché. She has been crippled from the outset to a large extent, since however she is performed Joy is ultimately not particularly likeable.

Much stronger is Hawkes as Maddie’s brother Jim. He lives with an unspecified mental or psychological condition – autism is certainly not out of the question – and his awkward pauses and refusal to make eye contact with others make him a fascinating character to watch. So much of Jim’s personality is in Hawkes’ performance, with the screenplay wisely steering clear of making his back story and circumstances too obvious and direct. There is a pleasing relationship that builds between Jim and Joy, as the latter is invited into his garage to write and play music together, and it is only disrupted when the film returns to focus on Joy’s addiction. With less of those elements, and more of the music and friendship, and Unlovable would be a much more engaging and appealing picture. Leo is solid as Maddie, a smaller but plot-critical character who effectively links the two sides of the film together.

A strange conceit creeps into the film in its second half, in which characters somehow communicate using a combination of percussion beats and subtitles. It sticks out from the rest of film for being so entirely unlike the rest of the film. It does not really work either time, but the second – a silent conversation between Joy and Jim’s grandmother (Ellen Geer) – feels particularly out of place and silly.

Technically the film is straight-forward and unobtrusive, with the relatively low production values pushing the focus of the piece entirely onto the characters and their respective actors’ performances. The high point almost all involve Jim and Joy making music together; there is an easier sense of character in those scenes that the remainder of the film struggles to find. There is potential in Unlovable, and with some significant restructuring and rewriting it could be possible to make a film that matches the quality of its key performances. As it stands, however, the film feels like a missed opportunity. It is the worst kind of film: not actively bad, but simply rather boring.

Unlovable was shown at CAAMFest 2018 on May 11 and 20.