Ugly. Unworthy. Unlovable. These words burn inside us, whether they possess any truth or not, turning to ashes every semblance of self-worth we own. For some, it’s enough to recognize the strength within themselves to prevent true psychological destruction; however, for others, there’s no escaping the voices that creep in to tear us down. In the case of comedian/actress/performer Charlene deGuzman, this leads her down a path of love and sex addiction in an attempt to drive away those words and fill in the void within herself. Drawing inspiration from her own journey of recapturing her agency, deGuzman, in conjunction with Sarah Adina Smith (Buster’s Mal Heart) and Mark Duplass (Togetherness), co-wrote the script for Unlovable to tell the tale of one woman’s painful fall and triumphant rise.
Unsatisfied with her relationship with her parents, her job, and her boyfriend, Joy (deGuzman) turns to sex with random strangers to help fill the void within her. After attending a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting, she asks fellow member Maddie (Melissa Leo) to be her sponsor. Initially reluctant, Maddie offers Joy an opportunity to get her first 30 days in relative peace by staying in Maddie’s grandmother’s guesthouse. Given specific instructions of decorum, including not engaging with Maddie’s brother Jim (John Hawkes) or her Nana (Ellen Geer), Joy is told to use this time to examine herself so that she may discover who she is without intimacy from others. Though Joy sticks to most of the rules, she struggles to find something to connect with creatively until she discovers Jim’s drum kit, enabling her to tap into something she’d long since forgotten. Drumming not only focuses her energy into something personal, it enables her to form a healthy platonic relationship with the equally messed up Jim.
Undoubtedly, Unlovable’s story summary isn’t going to grip audiences, but its execution is so enduring that audiences will become instantly captivated. Running at a tight 80 minutes, director Suzi Yoonessi (Relationship Status) manages to squeeze every scene for maximum efficiency, ensuring that each frame possesses some kind of meaning throughout Joy’s journey. What’s most interesting to observe is the way Yoonessi, in partnership with cinematographer Moira Morel (Tegan and Sara: Faint of Heart), inserts a ’90’s vibe, borrowing the quirky characters of Clerks, the look and sound of Empire Records, and the tonal balance of Pump Up the Volume to craft a world in which Joy’s Riot Grrl look, her self-reluctance, and journey feel both modern yet stuck in an era when she last felt strong. It makes sense then that Joy would develop a strong bond with Hawkes’ Jim, an aloof man unable to connect with anyone, whose entire energy is of a punker who never gave up on music even when the scene gave up on him.
Given the frequently dark subject matter enclosed within Unlovable, it’s an incredible surprise how light, sweet, and fun the film reveals itself to be. The script by deGuzman, Smith, and Duplass ensures that Joy’s journey is authentic, never short-handing or underplaying the gravity of her actions, but also managing to find the humanity and humor that exists there. In the opening scene, Joy’s voice explains who she is and how she feels about herself while the audience watches her attempted suicide. Instead of being stoic and intense, the scene plays out as a woman trying to distract herself, talk herself up to the act (an overdose of pills taken with cough medicine), until she throws it up – with her own commentary on how this is just another failure. As the scene continues, Joy cleans up her sick while trying to make plans with her Mom for Mother’s Day, who deflects the question and hurries off the phone. Though there’s nothing innately humorous at all in this scenario, deGuzman beautifully captures the sense of “what else could possibly go wrong?” in her performance, mining uncomfortable laughter out of a horrendous situation. That general sense of finding something human about even the worst moments returns later as Joy and Jim begin opening up to each other. Initially, Jim is stand-offish and disconnected, frequently coming of as cold in the way he tells Joy that “everyone’s sad,” seemingly undervaluing her emotional baggage, leading to a hilariously touching scene that typifies the combination of humor and melancholy that forms the through line of Unlovable. In this moment, frustrated and feeling shut-out, Joy literally drums out her feelings to Jim who responds via plunking his guitar. It’s a bittersweet and charming back-and-forth of two lonely, somewhat isolated individuals trying to find their way. Using their shared pain, they create music, nonsensical as it may initially sound, that’s also deeply honest, enabling the disconnected Jim and the disaffected Joy to communicate with someone in a way where words fail. Unloveable truly runs the gamut of silly to serious, light to dark, yet the humor that comes out never degrades the message, only highlights the natural absurdity of the moment.
The circumstances of Unlovable are certainly heightened at times, yet the cast doesn’t act like it, leaving the drama in the situations themselves versus adding to it. Instead, the narrative becomes a rich landscape for them to explore the nuances of their characters. Lead performers deGuzman, Leo, and Hawkes do the most legwork to keep Unlovable both engaging and emotionally moving. Leo and Hawkes are both effortless in their respective roles, unsurprising to anyone familiar with their work. Hawkes especially, pulling double duty also as the writer of the music Jim and Joy perform, does stand-out work in a performance where line delivery conveys a stilted coldness in contrast to a physical delivery teeming with energy that feels ready to burst out of him. While Jim himself isn’t explored outside of Joy’s POV, Hawkes ensures that the audience fully comprehends the measure of the man. Pulling them all together is deGuzman, offering up an unexpected rawness and depth to a character that could be played for superficial growth. Instead, for every low she faces and every high she achieves, the audience is right there with her, rooting for her at every step, finding themselves offering the kind of unconditional support Joy herself longs for. In addition to the leads, the minor characters Ben, portrayed by Paul James (The Last Ship), and Nana, portrayed by Ellen Geer (Phenomenon), are each given their due despite neither being explored beyond Joy’s lens. Ben represents empty desire, while Nana represents aged wisdom; offering to the story foils to measure Joy’s agency.
Unlovable is a truly surprising experience. It manages to balance the real trauma of addiction with the humor that frequently assists in coping and even healing. It never simplifies recovery nor minimizes the process for those it may help, even including small reminders that recovery is not guaranteed for those who undertake it and that slip-ups and back-slides happen. Including this kind of honest take, deeply rooted in music as therapy as it may be, isn’t that much of a surprise given Unlovable’s born of deGuzman’s experiences of her own addiction and her journey to heal. So, if you don’t mind a little bit of quirk and a few ’90s rock tunes to go along with your dark explorations of self, check out Unlovable.
In select theaters beginning November 1, 2018, and available for streaming on November 2, 2018.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.