Story told in this California-set indie should resonate with anyone who has ever had an abusive partner.

The need for change — and not just the kind necessary to plug parking meters — fuels the plot of helmer Cecilia Miniucchi’s offbeat feature debut, “Expired.” An occasionally cringe-inducing mix of pathos and humor, the tightly scripted, well-acted and notably art-directed tale follows a lonely, vulnerable meter maid who falls into a comically horrific relationship with a colleague incapable of emotional intimacy. The story told in this Southern California-set indie should resonate with anyone who has ever had an abusive partner, but its idiosyncratic tone renders it arthouse fare. A seething perf by Jason Patric should assure cult status on DVD.

While the milieu of traffic law enforcement officials, perhaps America’s most reviled public servants, may seen inherently funny, those expecting lots of easy laughs will be disappointed. The underlying theme here is the price we pay for love, and most of the humor is of the painfully human sort, deriving from a cathartic and compassionate acknowledgement of hurtful moments.

Pic unfolds from the p.o.v. of gentle, clumsy Claire (Samantha Morton), a kind soul who’s willing, if asked nicely, to overlook a motorist lingering in a loading zone, and to help a mother juggling baby and groceries to load her car. Not so her opposite number, Jay (Patric), a verbally and physically abusive loner who writes an average of 45 tickets a day, but whose aggression puts him on notice with his superiors.

As Christmas approaches, Jay makes a play (albeit an unflattering one) for Claire, who is wistfully conscious that her life hasn’t changed since she was dumped by her boyfriend six years ago. Over a series of humorously awkward meals, foul-mouthed Jay, a master of mixed messages, alternately insults and caresses Claire. She, lacking confidence, stressed at home and believing that something might be better than nothing, never protests the maltreatment.

When Claire’s stroke-afflicted mother (Teri Garr, who does hilarious double duty as Claire’s crazy Aunt Tilde), expires while mashing potatoes on Christmas Eve, she is left even more emotionally dependent on prickly Jay’s erratic attentions.

Pic’s lesson that “Sometimes in life you meet an asshole and you need to know when it’s time to move on” proves knowledge hard won by the meek heroine, but Miniucchi’s elegantly constructed screenplay satisfyingly charts Claire’s transformation from doormat to defiant.

Portraying the epitome of jerkishness, Patric gets the best dialogue, fluidly delivering wounding remarks, sour observations, and caustic exit lines (“I’ll probably call you”). His graceless behavior also elicits the most laughs, particularly in the scenes where he partakes of Internet porn.

The pic’s cool, blue-toned visuals further strengthen the sense of the characters’ diametrically opposed temperaments, at the same time flattering the thesps’ cerulean eyes. A floral motif is cleverly woven through plot, decors and costume.

Expired

Production

An Aga Films, FR Prods. presentation of a Jeffrey Coulter production. (International sales: GreeneStreet Films Intl., New York). Produced by Jeffrey Coulter and Fred Roos. Executive producers, Antoni Stutz, Alexander Shing, Lawrence Wang. Co-executive producers, Holley Heitz, Jason Rose. Co-producer, Melitta Fitzer. Directed, written by Cecilia Miniucchi.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen 35mm), Zoran Popovic; editors, Anne Gorsaud, Fritz Feick; music, Jeffrey Coulter; production designer, Natalie Sanfilippo; art director, Celine Diano; costume designer, Swinda Reichelt; sound (Dolby Digital), Karl Lohninger; associate producers, David Fratto, Michael W. Abbott; assistant director, T.K. Shom; casting, John Jackson. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week, closer), May 24, 2007. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Samantha Morton, Jason Patric, Teri Garr, Illeana Douglas.

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