Film Review: Unlovable

A slight indie film based on the experiences of a real sex-and-love addict that features some unexpectedly terrific performances.
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Four years ago, the comedian Charlene deGuzman sent a bold DM on Twitter to filmmaker Mark Duplass, asking him to read the pilot she had written about her struggles with sex-and-love addiction. Indie stalwart Duplass “saw the raw emotion and humor and the explosive energy” in the piece and would go on to exec produce the film version of deGuzman’s story. That movie, Unlovable, dips in and out of high-energy moments—moments when it is at its best—which it intercuts, regrettably, with other moments of trite dialogue. But with heavy-hitters like Melissa Leo and a particularly terrific John Hawkes backing up a magnetic deGuzman, the slight, 80-minute movie makes for strange and surprising entertainment.

The film opens with a humdinger sequence: deGuzman as our protagonist Joy, getting wasted, downing pills, and dancing around her house while remembering her glory days as an adolescent dancer. She tap-dances frenetically as we watch home-movie footage of Joy as a kid performing with far crisper movements across an auditorium stage. The editing is swift, the energy taut, and when Joy collapses on the ground to vomit up those pills at last (she couldn’t even get killing herself right, she laments in voiceover), we, too, breathe a sigh of relief, perhaps not realizing we had been holding our breath as the music built. It is one weirdly great opening sequence.

The rest of the movie never matches the fun anarchy of its introduction to our heroine, she cast in the by-now-familiar mold of “lovable messes,” but it has its moments. In short order after her failed suicide attempt, Joy goes ignored by her parents, cheats on and loses her boyfriend, loses her job, and is refused by the person at her sex-and-love-addiction support group whom she asks to be her sponsor, a woman named Maddie (Leo). But bottom is not a place Joy has reached just yet…that she finds in the home of a stranger who mistakes her for a prostitute following a night of drunken orgies with several men. With nowhere to go, Joy calls Maddie, who agrees to let her stay in her grandmother’s guesthouse on one condition: Joy must go 30 days without speaking to her ex-boyfriend and without having sex.

Joy struggles, of course, but things don’t really pick up again until she meets the man taking care of Grandma in the main house, Maddie’s estranged brother Jim (Hawkes). Jim is an awkward recluse who is a not-half-bad musician. With characteristic boldness, Joy wanders into Jim’s garage one day and begins jamming on his drums. He kicks her out, only to invite her back the following afternoon for a lesson. A sex-less friendship blossoms between the lonely pair.

These scenes with Hawkes are the strongest in Unlovable. The tone of his speech is so understated, his physicality so naturally gawky (those overlong arms of his working to his advantage with this misfit character), the furtive darting of his eyes so uncomfortable and so moving, he utterly convinces. The role is a small one in a small movie, but being great, he makes it so. (He also wrote the movie’s original songs.)

deGuzman herself is no slouch. It’s a testament to her talent and to a singular brightness about her, which flirts with but never becomes too loud, that she is able to hold her own with Hawkes and, like Hawkes, a nicely understated Leo. One does wonder how well deGuzman would fare playing a character that is not a version of herself, but that speculation has no bearing upon this riff on her own story.

Thus it is unfortunate, given all this talent, that Joy when she begins to mature is stuck with making stale observations about life and humanity—revelations like “My parents are human beings” who have no idea what they’re doing, just like her. Unlovable is much, much better when it is unabashedly weird. Strangeness seems to come more effortlessly to the filmmakers and is less of a strain on the script than those striving-for-profound moments.

With all of Joy’s kooky outfits and penchant for pineapples and side-ponytails, the character and her film are also sometimes in danger of being too eye-rollingly, hipster-indie precious. But any number of sins are forgiven when a cast like the one in Unlovable is so good. Duplass, deGuzman and director Suzi Yoonessi have packaged a slight but sure winner.