From “Rumours” to “Shoot Out the Lights” and “Dig Me Out,” a number of classic albums have been built on the fracturing of inter-band romances. In Zoe Lister-Jones’ comedy “Band Aid,” our bickering, go-nowhere protagonists attempt to reverse this tried-and-true process, starting a garage band as an outlet to safely exorcise their explosive marital strife. The brainchild of first-time director Zoe Lister-Jones (who also scripted, stars, produced, and wrote lyrics for the film’s original songs), “Band Aid” has wit and nasty charm to burn in the earlygoing, generating enough goodwill to power it through an uneven final act. It ultimately comes across more like a promising demo tape than a mixed-and-mastered final product, but the director displays plenty of chops going forward.
When we first meet Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally), they’re arguing over a sink of dirty dishes, though it doesn’t take long for the dispute to escalate, and the speed with which it does indicates that this is not a rare occurrence. Both are frustrated creative types – he’s a onetime aspiring artist who procrastinates his freelance design gigs, while she’s an Uber driver who can’t help but bring up her cancelled book contract in every conversation – and both have reached an age where playing the weed-smoking starving artist has lost its glamour. (It’s obvious that there’s a deeper trauma than household chores or job satisfaction lurking behind these arguments, and the film takes more time than it needs before revealing it.)
Their directionless lives thrown into stark relief when they attend a birthday party packed with their friends’ young children, the couple get high and start jamming on the tykes’ toy instruments, which gives Anna an idea: What if they dusted off the guitars in their garage and tried turning their squabbles into songs? This scenario could easily verge on preciousness, but Lister-Jones’s indie pop tunes (co-written with Kyle Forester, and performed in warts-and-all fashion on set) seem just believable enough as spontaneous amateur compositions while still being catchy, and the two characters are never more likable than when they’ve got instruments between them.
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It helps, as well, that Lister-Jones gives both characters some rather deep flaws, and she’s never shy about letting their barbs draw real blood. Needing an intermediary just as badly as a timekeeper, they recruit their oddball next-door neighbor (Fred Armisen, stealing the show) to play drums, and the trio make some abortive attempts to gig at open-mic nights. Their musical primal-scream therapy has a salutary effect at first, though it seems just a matter of time before the other shoe drops.
The film is crammed with all sorts of hit-and-miss one-liners, bits of raunch, and inspired visual gags – the culinary employment of harmonica holders is particularly clever – but it lives and dies on Lister-Jones and Pally’s chemistry, which the film is just as willing to test as to nurture. There may well be love between them, but the two are just too good at pressing one another’s buttons to hold off for long, and “Band Aid” comes closer than most romantic comedies to suggesting that its central couple might end up better off alone. In making sure that they don’t, the final act leans heavily on dialogue straight out of a couples therapy textbook – much of which comes from the mouth of a therapist, to be fair – but the willingness to let things get raw goes a long way.
As a director, Lister-Jones finds a loose yet quick-moving rhythm, and even if the number of recognizable actors in one-scene cameos (Jesse Williams, Chris D’Elia, Brooklyn Decker, Ravi Patel) can tilt the film toward sketch-comedy territory, she’s careful not to overload any single scene with too much shtick. An overwhelmingly female below-the-line crew does very solid work on what was surely a modest budget.