Writer-helmer Zach Clark once again pulls off a tricky tonal shift in "Vacation!"

After his sophomore feature, “Modern Love Is Automatic,” writer-helmer Zach Clark once again pulls off a tricky tonal shift in “Vacation!” Made on an obviously minuscule budget but benefiting from strong perfs and an interesting script, this romp-turned-rumination on despair explores what happens when, as a glimpsed newspaper headline foretells during the title sequence, “3 Girls Cover Up a Friend’s Death on Beach Trip.” Although not quite as consistently compelling as “Automatic,” “Vacation!” could sun itself at other fests, particularly gay-themed events, and find an aud among fans of Gregg Araki films, melancholia and pina coladas.

Lonely and looking to reignite old friendships, mousy Sugar (Maggie Ross) invites three friends from her college days to take a week’s vacation at a beach house on the North Carolina shore. Lorelei (Lydia Hyslop) seems up for anything but is still obsessed by her ex-boyfriend, Dave (never seen). Glamazon receptionist Dee-Dee (Melodie Sisk, star of “Modern Love Is Automatic,” in which Ross also featured) is having an affair with a woman who has a b.f. already, while prim schoolteacher Donna (Trieste Kelly Dunn), the Charlotte of the bunch in “Sex and the City” terms, is still single.

As the days pass, the women amuse themselves, sunbathing, mixing cocktails and adopting blond wigs and joke personas when they go to get groceries. It’s clear they have less in common than they used to, and Sugar has a crush on Dee-Dee, who would rather make out in the shower with Lorelei, but everyone’s having a good enough time.

The fun ends abruptly after the four drop acid together (in a fluorescent-colored sequence that’s amusing at first but overstays its welcome) and someone is found dead the next morning.

Script never satisfactorily explains why the surviving three choose to hide the body rather than report the death to the police, which could rep a major empathy block for some auds. Clark seems more interested in studying how twentysomethings such as these deal with grief and guilt. The answer is: badly. Substance abuse and sex, both with each other and solo, are their initial solution, but even that starts to fail them, a point brought home with surprising poignancy when Hyslop’s Lorelei, hysterical with frustration, tries to masturbate unsuccessfully with a variety of household appliances.

Although the pic’s last half-hour droops disappointingly and, like the characters themselves, doesn’t know what to do with itself for the remaining days of the vacation, the ensemble holds attention throughout.

It’s no stretch to believe these femmes are friends, despite the passing of time since college, judging by the easy rhythms of their conversation and the way they fall into step with one another for an impromptu dance.

Vacation!

Production

A Candy Castle Motion Pictures presentation of a What's-It Co. presentation of a Gizmo Prods. production in association with This-and-That. (International sales: Candy Castle, New York.) Produced by Zach Clark, Daryl Pittman, Melodie Sisk. Executive producer, Elijah Kelley. Directed, written, edited by Zach Clark.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Daryl Pittman, Lydia Hyslop, Maggie Ross; music, Glass Candy, Fritz Myers; costume designer, Danielle McIntyre; sound, Daniel Sheppard, Jennifer Kachler; sound designer, Daniel Sheppard; assistant director, Bryan McKay. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Under the Radar), June 22, 2010. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Trieste Kelly Dunn, Lydia Hyslop, Maggie Ross, Melodie Sisk, Michael Abbott Jr., Tony Greenberg, Ellie Niccol.
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