Both of Justin Lerner’s feature films deal with sex and society, but so far his interests are more specialized than those explored by the Lars von Triers of the world. His 2010 Girlfriend, about a single mother who monetizes the affections of a young man with Down syndrome by trading sex for cash, is an equally challenging film that questions the why and who of sexual taboo. How certain abnormalities or deviants impact sexual relationships—or relationships with sex—is also explored in The Automatic Hate.
When jittery blonde Alexis (Adelaide Clemens, a dead ringer for Michelle Williams, channeling The Baxter with a dead-on Cecil Mills) shows up at Davis Green’s (Joseph Cross) Boston apartment claiming to be the daughter of his long-lost paternal uncle, Davis does what anyone would do. He tells her thank you, but she must be mistaken, as his dad doesn’t have any siblings—then tracks down his dad to see if she’s mistaken.
His father, Ron (Richard Schiff), a human development professor and self-appointed lord of the dad joke, does in fact have a brother he’s kept hidden, along with a disturbing secret he’s equally reluctant to revisit. But as Davis falls down this family reunion rabbit hole and finds himself in dangerous territory, he not only confronts his own weaknesses in the face of abject desire, he must also come to terms with the crushing and very real possibility of just from whom his dad was trying to save him.
Drawing Lerner’s main conceit into focus is Ron’s introduction to his human development class on the first day of the semester: “Nature, nurture. That is the question. And this class will bring us to a closer understanding that the question is bullshit. The answer is far more complex, more subtle than any black or white conclusion.” Whether Alexis’s intentions in seeking out Davis are purely to enlist his help in reuniting their families, or whether the events following their twisted meet-cute are premeditated, born from a sordid fantasy, this bizarre take on star-crossed lovers is savvy enough to keep audiences invested in more than a train-wreck capacity. And yet, its risky premise never really offers any reward.
Davis’s whole character is laid out early and reliably. He and his girlfriend, played with graceful conviction by Deborah Ann Woll, are having problems, evidenced by the opening scene where she’s crying in bed and he’s locked out of the room. Later it’s revealed she had an abortion. Now an overused crutch, abortions are quickly replacing “daddy issues” in contemporary film as the way to plug in conflict and “complicate” a female character, but Woll rises above the cliché—even though later developments deem her development unimportant anyway. Strapped with parental disapproval of his career and love life, the space for Davis’ own journey through nature vs. nurture is cleared.
Cross staggers a bit under the weight of his overstuffed character. Davis is a big-city chef (with no tattoos?) who majored in philosophy and dates a professional dancer yet can’t stand up to his “coward” father. When he dives head-first into Pandora’s box of forbidden fruit, he lands somewhere between actual sickness and flagrant stupidity. It’s a hard look. Cross stays elusive, vacillating where he can between scared and smarmy, humble and hostile, but his mild nature and yes-man qualities don’t fill Davis’s formidable shoes.
Clemens (Rectify) has more success as girl-next-door in the front/femme fatale in the back, a character trope she rehabilitates with a doe-eyed mania both captivating and off-putting. Her performance in front of the camera, and director of photography Quyen Tran’s performance behind it, contribute the lion’s share of this film’s small success. Tran, who also worked with Lerner on Girlfriend, keeps the whole film afloat by adding darkly poetic overtures incongruous to the subject material, at times affording it a dreamlike aesthetic, as in a single-location montage of Davis and his cousins skipping through the grass at dusk or an explosive, almost acrobatic dinner scene with the two families.
There’s a lingering sense that The Automatic Hate could lose its footing entirely and derail into Alfred Kinseyan obscurity. Swimfan meets The Parent Trap (with incest!) sounds like an agent having a panic attack. Wrangling the pitch into something serviceable could be more daunting than the actual production; even green-lighting The Automatic Hate for personal viewing might prove a hard decision to stand by. But after credits roll and the urge to vomit has subsided, the merits of Lerner’s ambitious sophomore feature do, actually, start to sink in.
Director: Justin Lerner
Writer: Justin Lerner, Katharine O’Brien
Starring: Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay
Release date: March 11, 2016