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Desperation, a dominatrix and detachment in relationships. Zach Clark brings them all in Modern Love is Automatic, one of the best films of SXSW.

You can see Modern Love is Automatic Saturday, March 21st at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar in Austin, Texas, and at the Boston Underground Film Festival.

At first glance, Modern Love is Automatic may come across to a viewer as a chance to look into the sadistic lifestyle of a dominatrix and the world around it. That would be reason enough for some people to see the film. However, writer/director Zach Clark chooses to go another route and the result is a one of a kind journey into a woman’s life that is smothered by a lack of satisfaction. Modern Love is Automatic is not a film concerned with the role sex plays in our lives. It rejects the opportunity to draw audiences in with the cheap thrill of sexual imagery and takes the road less traveled. That choice allows Modern Love to be a film unlike others.

The tagline for the film is “Beyond apathy” and the film comes through on the promise. Lorraine (Melodie Sisk) is a nurse that is unhappy with the life she leads. After an unfortunate encounter with her boyfriend and his new love interest, she takes in a new roommate, Adrian (Maggie Ross), who aspires to be a model in spite of her inexperience. Looking for a catalyst that will offer excitement, Lorraine takes a job as a dominatrix and initially enjoys the power she has over her clients. However, the charge that she gets from such a scandalous position soon wears off and Lorraine is left to deal with the numbness she feels towards everyone and everything around her.

Melodie Sisk is an actress you need to be looking out for in the near future (There are actually many actresses in the film who you need to have on your radar). Her performance as Lorraine is remarkably restrained, allowing us to do most of the work throughout the film. Instead of amplifying her emotions on a vocal and physical level, Sisk tells us everything we need to know about her character in her eyes and facial expressions. At moments we are allowed to get close to her, but not before Lorraine pulls back. She is a character that we want to understand and our inability to do so parallels the frustration Lorraine feels herself. In short, Sisk gives a beautiful performance as a woman who finds difficulty in attaching herself emotionally to her surroundings.

The supporting actresses help build a wall around Lorraine. Maggie Ross captures a wonderful naivete in her approach to playing Lorraine’s roommate, Adrian. She is admirable in her optimism and you feel for her when her dreams and relationships fall around her. In the hands of other actresses, Adrian could have come across as a cartoon character. Adrian does the character justice and never pulls us too far in the direction toward one emotional territory.

Diana Cherkas also stands out as Emily, Lorraine’s co-worker with a seemingly picture perfect partner. You could imagine “Going to the Chapel” playing in her scenes as she gushes about her saccharine sweet fiance. Clark allows her to have a substantial scene later in the film that allows Emily to transcend the two-dimensional character her type would usually be in lesser films.

All three of the aforementioned characters are given scenes to have emotional breakdowns or breakthroughs, proving that Clark is sensitive to and capable of writing from the female perspective. It’s worth noting that Clark has said this film is as close to an autobiography as he has ever written. What moviegoers need to understand is that emotions aren’t exclusive to one sex or the other. Sometimes it makes more sense for a male to tell his story through the voice of a female and vice verse. Clark understands this and his story shines through.

The film does suffer a little bit because of a lack of strong male characters that we can relate to. Nearly every man in the film comes across as trashy, twisted or submissive to Lorraine’s personality. We’re willing to forgive this for the fact that there aren’t enough films that focus entirely on the wants and needs of women, particularly a woman so complex as Lorraine.

Clark has channeled the vision of Douglas Sirk and made a stylized film that finds new ways to convey the emotional chaos within. If you’re looking for sex and hyper-stylization, Modern Love is Automatic is not the film for you. This is a case where you can’t judge a book by its cover. We can leave films that want to gag you with color to Baz Luhrmann. Through the color choices of pastels, neons and a soundtrack (almost entirely composed by Blasphemer) that jars you out of the scene, Clark challenges us to understand the contradiction between Lorraine and Adrian’s actions and their endeavors to understand why the world doesn’t make sense to them.

Whether the payoff at the end of the film works for the moviegoer is up to interpretation. It definitely was noteworthy and affecting to us, probably one of the most tender scenes in film that we have seen in some time. That’s saying a lot considering Clark has painted a canvas filled with characters living lives of grey and turned it into a film filled with fluorescent frustration. Modern Love is Automatic isn’t a film for everyone. If it were that type of film, we wouldn’t have any desire to see it. It will affect you on an emotional and sensory level. The question is whether you are honest enough with yourself to accept the challenge.

Grade: B+

For more of the best damn coverage of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival, check out our SXSW ’09 Homepage.


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