Some people hate themselves so much, they can never be loved enough. There is much to admire in Suzi Yoonessi’s “Unlovable,” along with a teasingly provocative question to ponder: Just how difficult might it be for a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to cope with her own self-esteem issues?
Boldly drawing from her real-life experiences in a 12-step program for sex and love addiction, co-scriptwriter and lead player Charlene deGuzman yanks that stock character out of the romantic comedy recipe book and turns her inside out, to lay bare her deeply troubled, desperately needy soul. Better still, deGuzman pulls that off in a dramedy that remains winningly amusing even when it’s obvious that, in addition to providing what can only be described as subversive film criticism, she’s attempting to prod some members of her audience with shocks of recognition.
We are introduced to Joy (deGuzman) at a point in her life when she’s within shouting distance of rock bottom. Feeding her insatiable appetites for binge drinking and random sexual hook-ups has driven her to a demeaning variety of wretched excesses, leading to the loss of her performing gig on a children’s TV show, a break-up with her sympathetic but not infinitely patient boyfriend (Paul James), and her eviction from the apartment they shared. After flubbing a suicide attempt, she awakens one morning to find that, the night before, she served as a sexual piñata at a bachelor party. Her humiliation is dialed up to 11 when a grateful partygoer assumes Joy is a working girl, and generously pays her for her services.
That embarrassing episode gives Joy the final push she needs to fully participate in a 12-step program, which in turn leads her to recruit Maddie (effectively underplayed by Melissa Leo), another recovering addict, as her sponsor. After initially expressing reluctance — for reasons made clear much later — Maddie agrees to support Joy, and offers her temporary living quarters in the guesthouse behind the home of her frail grandmother (Ellen Geer). But Joy must abide by two rules: She must promise to go 30 days without alcoholic intake or sexual activity — even masturbation would be a deal-breaker — and she must never, ever interact with her brother Jim (John Hawkes), a physically and emotionally vulnerable indie-rock musician turned recluse who serves as their grandmother’s caregiver.
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It’s easy to imagine a parallel cinematic universe in which Joy becomes Jim’s lover and muse, selflessly devoting herself to his needs and drawing him out of his shell and blah, blah, blah. But this isn’t that movie. Rather, “Unlovable” focuses on how Joy reinvents herself, through trial and error, and how she takes responsibility for starting over from square one whenever she trips, stumbles, and falls on the road to recovery. There are times when you’re tempted to turn away when Joy makes the latest in a long line of really bad, even self-destructive choices. But deGuzman’s performance is so arresting and engaging, you keep your eyes glued to her — if only so you don’t miss the next development that will be hilarious or heartbreaking or both.
Joy and Jim do indeed become friends — and even musical collaborators, with him on guitar, her on drums, and at least one songwriting collaboration — but the slow and wary development of that friendship is less a stereotypical mating dance than the establishment of a mutual support system for two bruised souls who need all the help they can get.
Hawkes (who wrote all the original songs heard in the film, including an ineffably larky tune titled “Time Traveler”) deftly and unaffectedly sustains a graceful give-and-take with deGuzman that suggests the beguilingly easy interplay between jazz artists who have practiced together long enough to make every riff seem improvised. And much as deGuzman seems right for her diminutive role, so too is Hawkes: He appears frail enough for the audience to fear he might wind up in another zip code should a strong wind suddenly whip through the area. He makes Jim’s chronic avoidance of making eye contact an integral part of his character. And he can be quite funny (earning the biggest laugh of the movie with the line, “I love orange juice).”
Still, there never is any doubt that Joy is the heart and soul of “Unlovable,” and that deGuzman — who co-wrote the screenplay with Sarah Adina Smith and co-executive producer Mark Duplass — has first claim on the audience’s rooting interest. The only time this in any way feels like a limitation instead of a selling point is when the narrative abruptly leaps ahead several months, and picks up in a scene that suggests friends have been strangers for a while.
Yoonessi’s direction is fluid and perfectly in sync with the try-anything venturesomeness of her screenwriters. On two occasions, she veers away from her (mostly) naturalistic approach by having characters communicate with each other nonverbally, and providing subtitles so that we, too, know what they’re talking about. It’s always tricky, and risky, when a director more or less announces, “Hey, look: This is a movie. We can do anything.” But in this case, it works.