At first knowing and campy, but growing darker and more interesting by degrees, the low-budget sex comedy “Modern Love Is Automatic” tracks the fortunes of a bored nurse who starts moonlighting as a dominatrix. Given its premise, pic could have easily repped just another hipster-targeting celebration of alternative lifestyles, but instead, sophomore writer-helmer-editor-producer Zach Clark (“Rock & Roll Eulogy”) audaciously suggests that even whipping businessmen while wearing latex catsuits won’t necessarily make you happy. It’s a chilly message, and coupled with its ice-maiden heroine, pic may struggle to connect with all but the most modern-minded auds outside the fest circuit.
Living in some unidentified East Coast suburb, poker-faced brunette bombshell Lorraine Schultz (Melodie Sisk) is clearly bored with her job as a nurse, and so bored with her b.f., Ben (Matthew Hartman), she hardly blinks when she catches him having sex with another woman.
After she kicks Ben out, Lorraine takes in terminally perky aspiring model Adrian (Maggie Ross) to help pay the rent, and takes up dominatrix work as a sideline after boning up, as it were, on the techniques involved (she studies an S&M mag she finds on a bus). She proves adept at her new hobby, but the charms of forcing men to clean toilets while wearing gimp masks start to pale after a while.
Meanwhile, a subplot follows Adrian as desperation forces her to take a job in a mattress showroom, where she’s expected to wear skimpy outfits and flirt with the customers. It’s much like working in a strip bar, opines one colleague (Marissa Molnar), except in a strip bar, the customers aren’t allowed to touch the workers.
So far, so John Waters-esque, but with fewer one-liners. But around the halfway mark, things turn nasty as Adrian’s b.f. Mitch (Carlos Bustamante) develops a creepy obsession with Lorraine and starts stalking her.
Clark’s skill at shifting tone impresses, and what at first seems like a good indie-movie laugh at the expensive of provincial hicks develops into something both more empathic and more troubling. It helps that Sisk’s laconic performance (she must barely utter more than 200 words throughout) reps a kind of blank slate onto which characters and auds can project what she might be thinking. The final scenes prove, however, there’s more there than just a pretty face.
Strikingly stripped-down production design enhances the air of anomie, while the costumes by Denise Farthing, in particular Lorraine’s trademark hot-pastel outfits (somewhat reminiscent of Joan Holloway’s wardrobe on “Mad Men”), add a nice, kitschy splash of color to the proceedings. Raucous tunes by hard-core outfit Blasphemer inject punky edge.