Sundance Film Review: ‘The Intervention’

Three couples gather for a country weekend to help a fourth duo break up in Clea DuVall's directorial debut.

Intervention Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The Intervention” finds three couples gathered for a country weekend, where they’ve plotted to perform emergency surgery on a fourth duo’s trouble marriage. Naturally, this well-intentioned but very probably misguided effort goes awry, with everyone’s personal fault lines exposed to variably seriocomic effect. Actress Clea DuVall’s debut feature as writer-director is an ensemble piece that breaks no new ground in themes or execution, but is pleasingly accomplished on all levels. It may not be quite edgy or distinctive enough to make much of a splash in niche theatrical release, but should prove a viable home-format item.

The group of thirtysomething friends who gather at an expansive family summer residence outside Savannah, owened by Jessie (DuVall), haven’t met there for some years; life got in the way of what had been an annual tradition. But now Annie (Melanie Lynskey) has orchestrated a reunion, one with a mission as yet unknown to the two who are its intended target. The others in on the plan — though more reluctantly, having bent to Annie’s considerable will — are Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), Jessie’s girlfriend in Los Angeles; Matt (Jason Ritter), Annie’s long-term fiance; and recently single Jack (Ben Schwartz), who’s brought along an otherwise uninvited stranger in the form of his new, discomfortingly young squeeze Lola (Alia Shawkat, serving a purpose a whole lot like Meg Tilly’s in “The Big Chill”).

Jack is the most vehemently resistant to Annie’s scheme, which is a group “intervention” designed not to save the marriage of Jessie’s sister Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza), but to put it out of its misery. Though the two have three young children, they’ve long since reached that point where everything one does strikes the other as insufferable. Indeed, they’re already fighting in the car when they arrive. Ergo Annie has determined they should be urged to divorce — though once she’s had a few drinks, she isn’t the most reliable executor of her own plan. (In fact, she might require an intervention of her own.)

Once the assembled finally get down to business, Ruby and Peter aren’t at all grateful for the meddling. Furious, Peter impulsively spews a stream of invective indicting everyone else’s hypocrisy in pretending to know what’s best for anyone else’s relationship. They’ve got problems of their own they’re avoiding, not least Annie’s perpetual postponing of her wedding to passive, patient (to a point) Matt. Nor is it especially helpful that the free-spirited, apparently bisexual 22-year-old keeps hitting on Jessie, who’s had a reputation in the past for liking the young ‘uns.

While the tone does gradually shade a bit darker, DuVall never abandons humor entirely, save for a couple of climactic speeches (notably Smulder’s) that are admirable for their concision and emotional directness. “The Intervention” treads familiar terrain, yet its frequently droll dialogue, brisk narrative progress and well-drawn if not wildly deep characters consistently avoid the feel of formulaic dramedy.

An asset as a thesp for two decades now, from youthful leads (“The Faculty,” “The Slaughter Rule”) to more recent character roles on big screen (“Argo”) and small (“Heroes,” “American Horror Story”), DuVall demonstrates a deft hand guiding her cast here. All are in fine form, with Lynskey occupying the more comedic and Smulders the more straight-up dramatic ends of a fluid performance spectrum.

Basically limited to one location’s interior and grounds, “The Intervention” is smoothly crafted in all tech/design departments, though disinclined toward any bold stylistic contributions — the closest to that being a soundtrack of pleasant, somewhat interchangeable female-driven various-artist cuts and an original score by Sara Quin of Canadian duo Tegan & Sara.

Sundance Film Review: ‘The Intervention’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 2016. Running time:<strong> 89 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: A Canana presentation of a Burn Later production. (International sales: ICM Partners, Los Angeles.) Produced by Sam Slater, Paul Bernon, Sev Ohanian. Executive producers, Mel Eslyn, Clea DuVall, David Bernon.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Clea DuVall. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Polly Morgan; editor, Tamara Meem; music, Sara Quin; music supervisor, Rob Lowry; production designer, Lanie Faith Marie Overton; costume designer, Alex Simone; sound, Daniel Sheppard; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Gene Park; assistant director, Drew Langer; casting, Amey Rene Morris.
  • With: Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne, Vincent Piazza, Jason Ritter, Ben Schwartz, Alia Shawkat, Cobie Smulders.