In the fall of 2014, comedian Charlene deGuzman was 30 days into a 12-step program for sex and love addiction when she wrote what she thought could be a television pilot about her experiences. She sent onetime Austinite and writer/actor/director Mark Duplass, who was following her on Twitter but had never met her before, a direct message asking him to read her script. That night has resulted in a remarkable feature-length film, “Unlovable,” that had its world premiere at South by Southwest on Saturday night.
DeGuzman co-wrote the screenplay along with Duplass and “Buster’s Mal Heart” director Sarah Adina Smith, and she completely owns the movie as lead character Joy, a young woman who is struggling with life every step of the way. While starring on a kid’s television show that teaches its viewers about self-esteem and doing the right thing, she is instead in a very dark place. “I couldn’t even kill myself right,” she sighs in the opening narration.
Despite having a loving boyfriend whom she lives with, Joy has a tendency to get very drunk and have sex with complete strangers, often only having vague recollections of the experiences later. She hits absolute rock bottom after waking up one morning from an apparent bachelor party orgy, only getting an idea of what she had done from the Polaroids spread out on a coffee table. The icing on the proverbial cake comes when she goes to leave and a man tries to pay her, assuming she was a prostitute.
Before long she’s lost everything that she cares about in her life because of her addiction and heads to a self-help group for assistance. She finds a 12-step group led by Maddie (Melissa Leo), who is initially reluctant to be her sponsor. When she does agree to help Joy, it’s under very strict rules — she must live in a guest house behind her grandmother’s home and completely detox her life. No drinking, no social media, and perhaps most difficult: no sexting or sex. Something she is unsuccessful with a few times before getting on track.
Everything turns around for her upon meeting Jim (John Hawkes), Maddie’s brother who lives in the main house taking care of his grandmother. After discovering his drum kit in the garage, their initially awkward interactions turn into outright practice sessions, and Joy begins to find her voice through song. All the original music for the film was written by Hawkes, and I instantly wanted to pair the movie into a double feature with Zoe Lister-Jones’ “Band Aid” from last year (another terrific movie about the healing power of music).
In print, some of this may sound quite tragic, but in reality, the film is outrageously funny. DeGuzman has incredible comic timing, and her own experience with the material adds a depth to the character that couldn’t have come from just any actor taking on the script.
Director Suzi Yoonessi balances the humor and the emotional moments expertly but also recognizes the benefit of being short and sweet. The film wraps up at 79 minutes without a wasted moment — it gets to the point and pushes us through the highs and lows of Joy’s recovery without wallowing in her missteps.
“Unlovable” is a breath of fresh air and hopefully a launching pad for us to see more of DeGuzman’s work. I think she has a lot more stories worth telling.
“Unlovable” screens again at 2:30 p.m. March 11 at the Alamo Ritz and at 9:15 p.m. March 13 at the Alamo South Lamar. Grade: A