Tuesday, March 8, 2016

THE AUTOMATIC HATE--Justin Lerner's family dram-com is one nifty little zinger of a movie

My only experience with a movie made by writer/director Justin Lerner is the oddball 2011 film, Girlfriend, so I am happy to declare that his new endeavor, THE AUTOMATIC HATE, is an enormous improvement over that earlier work. Beginning with a look at an unsettled couple, followed by a mysterious unknown woman, a fractured family, a smart and funny college class in Behavioral Development, and a grandfather scene that takes its place in the canon -- all of this beautifully edited (by Jeffrey L. Castellucco) into a crisp and enticing 15-minute mystery having to do with a missing relative -- the movie finds a near-perfect melding of tone and theme via the excellent writing, direction and acting of its very fine ensemble.

That blend of tone and theme, by the way, is something rare in movies these days, and it makes workable a story that could easily go off the tracks. Instead, thanks in good part to Mr. Lerner (shown, left), it manages to stay oddly centered and surprisingly believable throughout. More than anything else, the movie is a mystery about what divided this particular family several decades previous. Clearly, whatever it was must have been pretty fucked-up. What brings it back together, as one character points out, is equally fucked-up. The answer to the mystery, when we finally get it, is a humdinger that makes immediate sense on a couple of levels.

The ensemble of performers gathered to bring this family to life could hardly have been chosen better, beginning with Joseph Cross (above) as the pivotal son and Adelaide Clemens (below) as an equally pivotal daughter.

Their fathers, two brothers who've not spoken nor acknowledged each other for years, are played in fine form by the always fascinating Ricky Jay (below, right) and Richard Schiff  (below, left) both of whose performances add further mystery and luster to the proceedings.

The fifth wheel here, the girlfriend of Mr. Cross' character, is brought to quivering and sympathetic life by Daredevil's Deborah Ann Wohl, below. Supporting roles -- wives and other children -- are handled equally well so that we don't doubt for a moment that these strange people we're viewing are indeed connected by nature and nurture (which is another theme the movie tackles quite well).

How this all plays out -- including one scene of family violence that manages to be both shocking and hilarious -- proves riveting and entertaining, finally serving up a visual and verbal definition of cowardice that seems spot-on.

The Automatic Hate does not easily compare to much else we've seen, with performances, writing and direction all straddling that line between believability and exaggeration, the real and the mythic. With just a little push in one direction the movie might have toppled into camp, or in the other direction into Greek tragedy. Instead, thankfully, it works its wonders by standing strong and tall -- if also quite alone.

From Film Movement and running 98 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, March 11, in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, in Santa Barbara on March 16 at the Plaza del Oro, and in Chicago at Facets Cinematheque and the Four Star in San Francisco on March 18. To see further screening dates, click here and scroll down. DVD and digital streaming will surely happen soon, as well.

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