Say this much for “The Park Bench”: It delivers on its title. Viewers get all the bench they can handle in writer-director Ann LeSchander’s exceedingly modest two-hander, but there’s a shortage of compelling conversation from its occupants. Though broken up by chapter titles, bits of animation and the occasional flashback, the vast majority of the action rides the pine, pairing a high-strung tutor with an earnest literature student for a flirty semester. Nicole Hayden and Walter Perez are winning in the lead roles, but LeSchander barely skims the surface of her book-smarts and his street-smarts, much less the cultural forces that keep them apart. A wisp of a romantic comedy at 78 minutes, the pic stands to come and go quickly from theaters, too, and its ancillary future seems limited to a showreel for its first-time filmmaker and stars.
Following up on minor roles in the acclaimed TV shows “Mad Men” and “Friday Night Lights,” respectively, Hayden and Perez seize the opportunity for more screen time in “The Park Bench,” and their easy chemistry is by far the film’s most appealing feature. After meeting in the park for the first of their three-a-week tutoring sessions, Emily (Hayden) suggests they head to the room she reserved in the library, but Mateo (Perez) convinces her that Walt Whitman worked among “trees and stuff” and perhaps they should, too. It’s a defining moment in their broadly sketched relationship: Emily the prim, OCD, by-the-book type yielding to Mateo the spontaneous, sensual, live-by-your-wits type. She may know “Leaves of Grace” chapter and verse, but nature is his territory.
Over the course of the semester, Emily and Mateo work through the classics of American literature, which regularly open up opportunities for them to discuss their own feelings and experiences. Mateo rejects “The Great Gatsby”s’ jaundiced view of the American Dream, offering instead the story of his Mexican parents crossing the Rio Grande and devoting themselves to a better life for their children. When the two really start opening up to each other, Emily raves about the romantic tragedy of “Ethan Frome” and how she connects to the repressed desire and longing in Edith Wharton’s prose. “They spend all this time together, but they never discuss their feelings,” she says in a typically on-the-nose moment.
Confining the action to one location has obvious practical benefits for a low-budget production like “The Park Bench,” but situating would-be lovers against a verdant backdrop is a good shortcut to intimacy, too. What’s missing from LeSchander’s script, beyond a more literate snap to the dialogue, are the details that might push Emily and Mateo past type. She’s a lamentably old-fashioned romantic-comedy heroine, attached to a dull fiance who offers “stability”; his stories of perilous border crossings and 10-hour shifts in the strawberry fields sound lifted from a political stump speech. Hayden and Perez do their best to generate sweetness and spark, but the obstacles separating these characters are as contrived as the cliches that animate them.
Given the Off Off Broadway simplicity of the staging, there’s not much room for tech elements to stand out. Gareth Taylor’s cinematography holds simple two-shots in natural light, with the occasional pan down from the canopy of trees above, and the score, by Dan Raziel, carries the familiar indie pluck of acoustic guitar and xylophone. The lone standout is Natia Nikolashvili’s animated interludes, which are bright and hand-drawn, and a welcome break from the mundane conversation.