Film Review: Easy Living

An exceptional character study of an outlier who lives a Jekyll and Hyde existence in a universe almost devoid of causality.
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As ironic understatement, the title of this strange little flick says it all, given its protagonist’s hardscrabble existence and the incongruous, at times wildly absurd, universe she inhabits at the corner of self-determination and luck, destiny and randomness. Easy Living is an original character study that eschews facile interpretations, marking an accomplished feature debut for its writer-director Adam Keleman.

Living in a seedy motel, Sherry Graham (Caroline Dhavernas) ekes out a living as a door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman in some unspecified bleak, flat suburban sprawl (shades of Albert and David Maysles’ 1969 documentary Salesman). During the day, she is the consummate professional, polished, charming and well-dressed in pastel shades that are color-coordinated to match her wheeled suitcase. Sherry frequently consults self-help books and mentally replays their trendy advice: “I will not settle for anything less than I deserve.” “By laying the groundwork, I am preparing myself for success.”

At night, Sherry watches old black-and-white movies on a small television screen before heading out to the nearest bar. There, she smokes one cigarette after another, drinks far too much and picks up any man that’s around for a night of anonymous sex. Contrary to conventional wisdom, despite her high-risk escapades, Sherry is not remotely unhappy. In fact, she’d be quite content if outside forces didn’t impinge on her freedom. That said, she’s also in denial. In this film, the two realities are not incompatible. Similarly, she’s a sexual adventurer, yet totally innocent; narcissistic, yet compassionate, even generous. Every night she feeds a stray dog outside her motel room. It’s a nice touch.

Occasionally Sherry drops by to visit her young daughter Alice (Taylor Richardson), whom she has largely abandoned to the care of her sister Abby (the always excellent Elizabeth Marvel), a quietly disappointed and angry woman who is now demanding that Sherry step up to the plate, financially if not emotionally. No one talks about the child’s father. I assume he was a causal encounter who Sherry may or may not be able to identify. Either way, she is seriously strapped for cash.

On an impulse, she abruptly decides that launching a beauty salon is the answer to her problem. Her self-help books certainly boost entrepreneurship, and with their encouraging "Go for it" words in mind, she applies for a $250,000 business loan and is promptly turned down. Sherry has no business plan; her income is negligible and she owns nothing that could serve as collateral.

She is unsophisticated and irresponsible (some might view her less charitably) though it’s not clear what choices she should—or could—have made that would have effected a different outcome. Keleman isn’t her apologist. Still, he has empathy for his self-contained, arguably alone, child-woman, who is a new type on screen. (Eve Annenberg’s heroine, also a complicated idiosyncratic amalgam, shared some of those qualities in From Hollywood to Rose).

We don’t know what makes Sherry tick, and little back story is offered. It’s no loss. In fact, these are well-chosen omissions in a cinematically imagined world defined by the overused phrase that resonates perfectly here: It is what is.

An interesting detail: Sherry’s best friend Danny is performed by Jen Richards, a trans-woman who may be playing a transgender or cisgender character. It’s never said. It is what it is. Very few directors could pull that off without coming across self-congratulatory.

The seeds of Keleman’s sensibility are evident in his two shorts, Long Days and Going Back, both centering on struggling, marginalized women living on the outskirts of suburbia. Neither woman is accounted for in any way. The director cites Barbara Loden’s 1970 Wanda as an influence; it’s a film recounting the experiences of an uneducated female misfit in coal country who makes some really dumb moves and finds herself at the center of a bizarre crime caper before, against all odds, managing to move on with her life. There’s no rationale—explicit or implied—for any of it.

Sherry, Wanda’s cultural heir, also manages to survive in a cosmic space gone mad. Indeed, the final section is so off the charts—involving a bank robber who needs dialysis and takes Sherry hostage until the tables are turned—it will alienate many viewers, even those who were willing to go along for the ride up until that point. I was one of them until I realized how stunningly on target that section is in the context of Keleman’s carefully limned narrative that is spawned in a place where causality has little role and coincidence and fate collide. It’s classic and subtle. Dhavernas, best known for her stint as Dr. Alana Bloom on NBC’s “Hannibal,” is well cast as the irrepressible outlier who is not readily accessible.

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