If there’s one thing that has come of the rise of the likes of the Duplass Brothers and the mumblecore (or something like it) movement, it is a slew of honest movies about relationships. The improvised nature of these films — which range from Baghead to Lynn Shelton’s Humpday to Alex Holdridge’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss — allow for a level of authenticity that can’t often be written beforehand. Many of these films are not just honest, but very real and very funny. And for this, we have the likes of Joe Swanberg and the Brothers Duplass to thank. That said, there appears to be a new star in this realm, someone with a close connection not only to these films, but to one of the men who helped propel them. However, it isn’t just carrying the torch of Katie Aselton, wife of Mark Duplass. It’s taking this style of filmmaking to new heights. Someone had better tell her husband to watch out.
Aselton’s directorial debut, The Freebie, stars Dax Shepard and herself as Darren and Annie, a married couple that is without a doubt, one of the most annoyingly adorable couples in the history of life. They adore each other after 7-years of marriage, have crossword puzzle races and even talk about things like “snuggle boners.” They’re seemingly perfect for each other, and have a perfectly functional and happy marriage. But there’s one problem: they can’t remember the last time they had sex. So instead of fixing their little problem the traditional way (by having sex), they concoct a plan in which each of them can go out one night and get some strange. We are left to watch, horrified and curious as they head out to sleep with someone else, hoping that it will repair their seemingly unbroken marriage.
What Aselton has accomplished with this story is simple, and simply brilliant at the same time. She’s made a very intimate movie about intimacy, filled with performances that are deeply engaging. Everything about this film keeps us close to the characters, including Benjamin Kasulke’s vibrant, tight cinematography. Working with story based on a 6-page outline and mostly improvised dialogue, Kasulke used two cameras to capture what can only be described as lightning in a bottle. It is a smooth, naturally experience that draws the audience in brilliantly.
Intimacy though, would not be quite so compelling if it weren’t for interesting characters. Aselton and Dax Shepard are magnetic together on screen. There’s a confidence in their relationship early on, mostly due to their on-screen chemistry, that drives the tension of what comes later. We expect this from Aselton, who was delightful in The Puffy Chair and other smaller roles (Glove Girl on The Office is a personal favorite). We don’t expect it so much from Shepard, who continues to evolve from the inane to the adequate. Between Baby Mama and this film, I’m convinced that the lights are on. And he should probably step away from the likes of Without a Paddle and Employee of the Month. Far away, where he can flourish as an actor with emotional range and narrative-propelling energy. That’s what we see here, and it’s refreshing.
All of this — creative vision, sound technical execution and performance — all serve to create this well-rounded, emotionally captivating story of intimacy. It’s a love letter to a neighborhood (Silverlake in Los Angeles) and a meditation on trust. As someone who connected with this movie on several levels, I can tell you that Aselton and crew absolutely get it right. Once you take a relationship to a place where trust comes into question, it’s impossible to go back to the beginning. With her non-linear, improvised narrative, Aselton makes a statement about this that will leave you discussing amongst friends long after you’ve seen the movie. In my mind, that’s what great movies do. They engage their audience during the film (in this case, with humor and authenticity) and beyond. So kudos to Katie Aselton. As a first time writer/director, she’s made what I would argue is a great film.