'The Freebie'

An agreeable if sketchy look at a couple who give themselves a one-night pass to have sex with other people.

A high-concept comedy with an ultra-low budget, “The Freebie” is an agreeable if sketchy look at a couple who give themselves a one-night pass to have sex with other people. “Puffy Chair” thesp Katie Aselton gets her feet wet as a writer-director but doesn’t leave the shallow end of the pool with this brightly turned-out do-it-yourselfer that possesses mild charm but will likely go further in alternative home-viewing formats than in theatrical release, which Phase 4 will undertake this summer after its Sundance pickup.

Exec produced by Aselton and hubby Mark Duplass and shot in 11 days in the couple’s Silver Lake district home in Los Angeles, the pic was largely improvised from Aselton’s six-page outline. A couple of around-the-table discussions among friends have a loose, spontaneous feel, but the key one-on-one scenes between the two leads are focused and on-point, short-circuiting the possibility of aimless indulgence.

Annie (Aselton) and Darren (Dax Shepard) are warm and intimate together, sharing feelings and snuggle sessions. But their physicality is distinctly cuddly rather than lustful and they can’t remember the last time they had sex. One of the film’s emotional and psychological limitations is that the characters never delve into the possible reasons for the erosion of the erotic: Do they infantilize each other? Does he have performance issues? Was she not getting much out of it?

Not only does the dialogue detour around the nitty-gritty, it provide no substantial information about the twosome as individuals. They seem like nice young folks and all, but they appear to have plenty of time to kill, and there aren’t even token mentions of what they do for a living, what they’re interested in, their backgrounds or previous relationships, or anything that would give them dimension.

As a result, the film’s focus remains incredibly narrow. More than halfway through the brief running time, Annie and Darren embark upon their evenings apart, she to a local hangout with a very willing bartender, he to an assignation with a girl in the neighborhood. We see the beginnings of the separate dalliances, notably a hot encounter Annie allows to happen in the bar’s bathroom, but don’t know for sure how far they go.

Unsurprisingly, the morning-aftermath is not as insignificant or guilt-and-suspicion-free as the more theoretical advance discussions had been. Some pain, resentment and deeper feelings come through in the final stages, although the film still wants for more incisiveness and a sense of full experience.

From a performance p.o.v., Aselton and Shepard hold the screen well and are most watchable, and Aselton does a fluid directing job within the limited challenge she set for herself production-wise. Benjamin Kasulke’s HD lensing is bright and sharp, while Nat Sanders’ editing is very crisp.

The Freebie

Production

A Phase 4 Films release of a Freebie presentation. Produced by Adele Romanski. Executive producers, Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton. Directed, written by Katie Aselton.

Crew

Camera (color), Benjamin Kasulke; editor, Nat Sanders; music, Julian Wass; music supervisor, Margueritte Phillips; production designers, Jessica Anisman, Phillips; sound, Sean O'Malley; re-recording mixer, Gene Park; second unit camera, Jas Shelton. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 27, 2010. Running time: 78 MIN.

With

Dax Shepard, Katie Aselton, Frankie Shaw, Ross Partridge, Sean Nelson, Bellamy Young.

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