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"What Other Couples Do": When Indie Movies Kiss & Tell


You can’t blame young creatives for being tempted into mining into their own experience. The ups and downs of trying to make it in the film business must be so intense that it can trick you into believing the minutiae has universal appeal. Writer-director Courtney Daniels avoids the trap by tapping into something akin to general human experience. Four couples dabble into silly sexual games in “What Other Couples Do,” showcasing a range of negative emotions. They will be easily recognizable to people earning a living in any industry. They might be a bunch of Hollywood hotshots, wannabes, and never-will-be, but their follies are easily relatable.

We enter the story through Ryan (Michael Marc Freeman) and Bree (Cate Beehan). He is a journeyman stand-up comedian, and she is a cultural reporter. As they rest before sleep, they contemplate an upcoming dinner party at the home of Josh (Gregory Hoyt) and Lisa (Hari Leigh). He is a very successful screenwriter, and she is a homemaker, fending off the dissatisfaction of resting in his shadow with half-assed workouts and interminable errands. We meet Michelle (Emily Maya Mills) and Dave (Rob Chester Smith) as they prepare to go to their chaotic home. Both are screenwriters, but having two toddlers sidelines the mother as the daddy negotiates to do the least possible child-rearing duties. Built-in drama comes with the impending reunion of a couple in the outs. Chris (Christopher Goodman), a film producer, was unfaithful to his wife, Ginger (Kristina Hayes). The professional chef has decamped to her family in Texas for months. Much to the merriment of the guests, she arrives accompanied by a younger man, an actor named Brad (Eric Callero). The plot thickens when Michelle proposes they play the teen kissing game “7 Minutes in Heaven,” mixing partners to keep things interesting.

Two Against the World

Daniels’ script pulls the nifty trick of crafting distinctive individual characters while creating an extra layer of identity that comes with couple-doom. When we are engaged in a relationship, our selves appear composed of two parts. Who we are by ourselves, and who we are when we are together with our partners. You could add a third layer, how the others perceive us. At its best moments, “What Other Couples Do” clarifies how our multiple selves intertwine or how you can strip one layer to contemplate another. These are not masks to wear but different facets of our true selves, colored by the interactions with those near and dear to us. 

Or perhaps, those we secretly despised to some degree. As the first characters are introduced, Ryan and Bree's bemused perspective colors how we see the rest of the group. They are literate and bourgeois. She reads The New Yorker magazine in bed, a trait deplored as pretentious by catty Michelle. But you can understand her low-key resentment. Sleep deprivation due to motherhood would do that to you. Michelle and Dave double down on the dismissal of Josh and Lisa. They think he is a hack who mistreats his poor wife with passive-aggressive superciliousness. Once we meet him, we can't help but agree with them. 

Jerk in Residence

Josh is the kind of over-confident hack that coasts on good luck and bravado. Think of the Russo brothers on a good day. While everyone enjoys his success to some degree - the fact that his house is worth more than a million dollars comes up in celebratory and derisive tones -much merriment derives from his ignorance of film history. The screenwriters are aghast when we fess up, with no discernible remorse, that she has not seen New Wave classic “Klute” (Alan J. Pakula, 1972) nor “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (Mike Nichols, 1966). “Is it good?” he asks with no hint of self-awareness.

The legendary, dark comedy of marital strife works as a touchstone and a callback. “What Other Couples Do” can’t possibly compete with that dark-hearted, scalding classic. Daniels likes her characters too much to push them into the abyss of despair conjured by Nichols and his towering stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Hoyt is very efficient at playing a monumental asshole, and there is pathos in Leigh’s Lisa when she finally musters up enough courage to confront him. Everyone will face a turning point when, on a lark, they decide to play the teenage kissing game Seven comes along. You know, when a random boy and a girl lock themselves in a closet and supposedly make out while their friends snicker outside the door and dread their own turn. Except that the ones playing now are middle-aged adults with decades of regrets and dashed dreams.

The Couple Less Likely to Succeed

The movie falters when it places the weight of dramatic resolution on the luck of Ginger and Chris. Hayes imbues the scorned woman with dignity, and her delight at shocking her friends by carrying a boy-toy in tow is hilarious. Much tension builds around the imminent arrival of the soon-to-be ex-husband, with the female characters sharing how handsome and sexy he is. When it comes to hitting the closet for Seven Minutes in Heaven, he would be their first choice. And then, Christopher Goodman shows up. No shade to the actor, but George Clooney, he ain’t. This is a faux pas of casting and screenwriting. The subplot would have worked just as well without the disparity in build-up and delivery. Part of the movie's charm resides in how, well, normal the whole cast looks. Appropriately, the only one who sports headshot handsomeness is Callero.

The lack of commercial Hollywood gloss works in favor of the movie. Like the recent “Beloved” (Bishrel Mashbat, 2020)- read our interview with the director - “What Other Couples Do” feels like an excursion behind the cameras. In true indie fashion, it makes the most of a handful of locations. It could have benefited from a bigger production design budget. Josh and Lisa’s home looks somewhat barren and not in a minimalist way. Had AirB&B been available when the movie was shot in the early Aughts, you would be excused to think they were behind the location scouting.

Heaven in the Closet

“What Other Couples Do” hits undeniably graceful notes when it locks unlikely couples in the closet. As you would expect, making out takes a backseat to short and intense moments of self-flexion and release. Each encounter is like a short play, happening inside a bigger work. Or a very, very good acting exercise. You can see how a rewrite, or a second pair of eyes, could have finessed the script into something even better. I can see it made - or remade - with recognizable and established stars. Still, the whole cast is so good that you wonder why we have not seen them going to higher visibility projects. Emily Maya Mills, in particular, walks away with the movie. And Michael Mark Freeman projects some Caucasian Javier Bardem energy.

For all its limitations, "What Couples Do" earns the best recognition an indie can get: to transmit to you the eagerness to watch more of its director and cast. A quick scan on IMDB reveals that Daniels works frequently with some of these actors. Some of them reappear in "Bedroom Story" (2020) and her latest, the short "This Fucking Town" (2022). It's frustrating to see that after this solid first film, it took Daniels seven years to produce her sophomore effort.

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