Three words spoken in the heat of passion trigger a fatal pileup of miscommunication in the whimsically morbid romantic comedy “The Accidental Death of Joey by Sue.” Set around Los Angeles on the Day of the Dead, the pic is so crammed with ethnic ceremonies and artifacts, it only slowly reveals its Latina heroine’s weirdness as stemming not from cultural otherness, but from the fact that she’s certifiably screwy — a detail that escapes her quirky Anglo boyfriend. Likely too marginal for theaters, this low-budget indie is stylish and strange enough to mark Sarah Louise Wilson and Neal Thibedeau as helmers to watch.
Selectively sampling scenes from the on-and-off relationship between Joey (Steve Talley) and Sue (Mercedes LeAnza) in somewhat the same time-scrambled manner as “500 Days of Summer,” the pic starkly opens with a dead Joey, then flashes back 18 hours to the morning of All Saints Day. Sporadically, references to past events conjure up stretches of the couple’s dating history (their first meeting) or brief snippets of passion (a lip-lock in a laundry room).
The fateful Day of the Dead, however, starts out ominously with Joey on the wrong side of Sue’s door, begging for his keys, his belongings and a clear explanation of what he did wrong. Sue denies him all three.
Pic then geographically splits between Joey at work at Plaza de La Raza, the city’s Latino cultural center, and Sue holed up at home. Joey fends off predatory advances from a slinky co-worker (Christina Ferraro) and a randy, outspoken sexagenarian (Lin Shaye, effectively half-channeling Edna May Oliver), then attends a spectacular performance by death-masked dancers, his own face painted in spectral black and white. Throughout, he vainly attempts to contact Sue.
As Sue stews, incensed at Joey’s untoward declaration of love (which somehow violates her projected relationship timeline), her house fills up with people who, in keeping with romantic-comedy paradigms, have ostensibly arrived to help her decide her next move. This motley assortment, however, defies generic expectations by dragging in its own baggage: Portly gay friend Jerry (Jabez Zuniga) decides his latest mime routine is just what the doctor ordered, while Sue’s younger sister Carrie (Caroline LeDuc) still harbors childhood resentments over a model train set. Everyone, including Carrie’s acerbic lesbian lover (Vanessa Libertad Garcia), offers advice completely out of sync with Sue’s situation (though admittedly, synching up with Sue’s brain would prove a difficult task).
Indeed, these characters almost seem like fragments of Sue’s mind — specters of past fears or failures, ridiculous in their very lack of cohesion. Writer-directors Wilson and Thibedeau occasionally approach Michel Gondry-like levels of absurdism (and sometimes challenge their young actors’ gifts for improvisation in run-on single takes), just as the well-integrated quasi-documentary footage of Joey at the Day of the Dead celebration trumpets its bizarreness. Still, Sue’s commitment phobia comes off as so scattered that her mind becomes as impenetrable to the viewer as it is to poor Joey.
Tech credits are competent.