Screenwriter William Goldman famously said nobody knows anything in the movie business, and we keep confirming this over and over again. Consider the case of director Jaime Babbitt. In the break of 2000, she released her first movie. But I’m a Cheerleader. It is a surprisingly deft comedy about a popular teen girl sent to a conversion therapy retreat when she manifests incipient lesbianism. The candy-color palette and self-conscious cartoonish characterization speak of heteronormative gender roles as a disguise to wear in order to sacrifice your true self on the altar of societal acceptance. The indie movie deservedly became a cult classic and a touchstone for a generation of queer kids. None of her following films gathered the same attention or connected with the zeitgeist with the same force.
Take Addicted to Fresno, whichpremiered at the 2015 South by Southwest Festival, getting nominated for the SXSW Game Changer Award, which I guess might be welcome for upcoming talent. Babbit already had three feature films and over 90 TV episodes in her filmography. The movie gathered mixed reviews and premiered in VOD before getting a limited theatrical release, a rather underwhelming rollout, considering it reunited the director and star of But I Am a Cheerleader and featured a cast that included Judy Greer, Aubrey Plaza, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjani, and Molly Shannon.
Theatrical distribution, dominated by wanna-be blockbusters and tentpoles, has no place for movies like this, which bide their time in the festival circuit before getting unceremoniously dumped in home video channels. I like to think I am up to date on movies and comedy, but Addicted to Fresno flew off my radar until it appeared in Popflick. Eight years is an eternity in the era of instant gratification, but paraphrasing the immortal Lauren Bacall, there is no such thing as old movies: If you have not seen it, it is new to you. This is actually a good moment to give it a chance, considering Lyonne’s successful run with episodic TV thanks to Russian Doll and Poker Face. Aubrey Plaza is everywhere, riding high on her appearance in the wildly successful series White Lotus. She has Francis Ford Coppola’s long-awaited Megalopolis set for release in 2023. If Addicted to Fresno were to premiere now, its fortunes would have been very different, at least pertaining to distribution.
Krav Maga Dream Girl: Plaza and Lyonne are bound to be together in "Addicted to Fresno" / Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
The plot revolves around Shannon, a selfish, abrasive sex addict fresh out of rehab. She moves in with her straight-arrow, sweet lesbian sister Martha. She takes her in and gets her a job with her, toiling in the cleaning crew of a dumpy franchise hotel in Fresno, California. Having the leads play against the character is the best curveball the movie throws at you: Greer is the train wreck, and Lyonne is the level-headed good girl. Pretty soon, we discover Shannon is far from rehabilitated. She is engaged in an affair with her married shrink (Ron Livingston), shagging in the bushes when the wife is home. She responds to the advances of scuzzy coworker Boris (John Daly) by raising the stakes. He wants to make out, and she pushes him to have sex in a vacant room. Wackiness ensues, leaving the sisters with a dead body to dispose of and a lifetime of resentments to air out.
It is fascinating to see Greer sinking her teeth into a role so far apart from her persona. You would have to jump in time to the recently canceled series Reboot to see her working on a similar register. Lyonne has the less showy but perhaps more difficult task of finding interest in goodness. Shannon’s dramatic arc relates to sisterly codependency and how it prevents her from giving in to the advances of Kelly (Plaza), a self-possessed physical trainer with romantic designs on her. The biggest misstep is to make Kelly such a unidimensional character, a perfect girlfriend who will not be denied. It is like a test run for the character Plaza would go on to play in Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, 2020), but with less vinegary humor and a ticket to get the girl in the end.
She ain't heavy, she's my sister: Lyonne and Greer in "Addicted to Fresno" / Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
Addicted to Fresno follows the trend of mining the proletariat for humor. There is some novelty in experimenting with these screwball complications outside of the coastal middle and upper-class milieu, the default setting for commercial comedy. The movie pushes the envelope further with bawdy, ribald references to sex. Conservative audiences might reject the comic tone, even though it is in sync with Shannon's personality and pathology.
The movie is consciously politically incorrect when it pivots the plot with rape, or rather, pretend rape. Martha shows Shannon the ropes and gives her tips on how to react if she ever suffers sexual abuse: scream “Fire!” and not “Rape!, because it is the only way people would intervene. There is some gallows humor at work here. Later, when Martha steps into Shannon and Boris in flagrante delicto, she pretends the consensual encounter is actually a rape so that it does not seem like she fell off the wagon. The scene is very off-putting and reminded me of my least favorite Pedro Almodóvar film, Kika (1993). More discomfort might be experienced with the character of a Jewish kid obsessed with money, whose bar-mitzvah is ripe for robbery when the sisters need to pay a couple of blackmailers. It is either that or prostitution, which Martha dismisses because it would interfere with Shannon’s rehab.
Perhaps this is what made Addicted to Fresno a hard sell upon release. Babbitt is not entirely off her game, but you can feel how the movie could be tighter and leaner in the editing. The large cast is a game, and you can find much to enjoy in their performances. Greer is excellent at making prickly Shannon compelling. There is truth in how her belated change comes not as a miraculous transformation but out of the exhaustion of living her life the only way she knows how to. Fans will perk up at a cameo by Clea DuVall, who played Lyonne’s love interest in But I Am a Cheerleader. That movie was lightning in a bottle. I hope Babbit keeps trying to catch it again.
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