“You used to be so original,” spits a spurned character to her partner near the end of “One Percent More Humid,” but from the outset, writer-director Liz W. Garcia’s indie drama plays like a tag sale of cinematic clichés, each one piled haphazardly atop another. A dreamy tale of guilt and grief whose affectations prevent any sort of genuine engagement with those emotions, this story about two girls coping with their role in the death of a friend has sporadic moments of genuine passion and humor. Mostly, though, it unravels at a pace far faster than it can spin the stories of its protagonists, limiting the prospects of this Tribeca Film Festival entry.
In an upstate New England university town, twentysomething Iris (Juno Temple) is joined by best friend Catherine (Julia Garner) to waste away the summer smoking weed and skinny-dipping at the local lake. Catherine’s so rich she doesn’t need to seek employment; Iris, a former a “townie,” is determined to earn some money at the local deli and work on her thesis, the subject of which is grief. The reason for that topic soon comes into focus — both women were involved in an auto accident that killed the third member of their tight-knit threesome, Mae (Olivia Luccardi).
Their trauma is revealed through teasing flashbacks, as Iris and Catherine stare off into the distance in shots that have a tendency to go watercolor-smeary around the edges. The visual tic serves no deeper thematic purpose, however, and feels like yet another contrived gesture in a film overflowing with them. Before long, Iris is wearing her most alluring short skirt in order to seduce her thesis advisor Gerald (Alessandro Nivola), who’s spending the summer away from his wife, Lisette (Maggie Siff), in order to try to write a novel. Even more self-destructively, Catherine initiates her own foolish sexual relationship with Billy (Philip Ettinger), Mae’s roughneck brother, whose reason for hooking up with her has a lot to do with retribution-style rage.
Seeking to screw their sorrow away, both Iris and Catherine are little more than two-dimensional creations, fiery free spirits in the bedroom and with each other, yet otherwise vulnerable, damaged little girls acting out in obviously foolish ways. Garcia sketches backstory details in cursory strokes, and without a real foundation to their characters’ bond or circumstances, Temple and Garner fail to bring much believability to their roles. Garner’s performance is so flat it negates the narrative’s already precarious balance. Temple, though radiates an unpredictability that can be bracing. In a pot-fueled bout of dancing, sandwich-making and goofing around at her convenience store job, she exudes infectious exuberance; and in her carnal encounters with Gerald, in an affair that otherwise feels like a stale retread of other such movie relationships, she gets at the way in which people manage their misery by channeling it through delirious sexual outbursts.
Garcia and Andreas Burgees’ cinematography is rife with cocked angles and filter-y, attention-grabbing gimmicks. The film’s title comes from Iris’ early comment that even a slight uptick in the temperature might cause everyone to drown. Indeed, “One Percent More Humid” delivers one half-baked element after another until — with a concluding scene that aims for everything-hanging-in-the-air instability but feels more like a final example of directionless — it finally winds up underwater.