As you come to learn in “Hot Mess,” there was a time when Loz (Sarah Gaul) admits she had “a brief run-in with religion,” having been lured to a church by the prospect of a pancake breakfast, only to end up bitterly disappointed when they were only making hot cakes for proper parishioners. One can’t imagine her being able to pretend to be polite for long enough to be mistaken for one, introduced to audiences working on a musical in which she sings about leaving her tampon in for 15 days in an ill-advised suicide attempt, yet the disappointment part is far more believable as Loz will find any excuse not to continue writing her song at the slightest road block, whether it’s clipping her toenails or scarfing down some cereal.
While Loz begins showing a tentativeness at 25 that she previously was able to power past with youthful idealism, and the realization sets in that instant success in either her professional or personal life isn’t going to happen as fast as she wants it to, if at all, writer/director Lucy Coleman is unsparing in depicting her, though the film’s title might be a little harsh. After a year of inadvertent celibacy and her creative frustrations stymying a potential residency at a local playhouse that would actually put some money in her pocket, Loz is self-aware enough to know that she has certain self-destructive tendencies she should get a handle on, but is unaware of any remedies but to present a brash, confident front and hope for the best.
The results are mixed for Lauren, but not so for Coleman, whose boldness is backed up with a strong ear for punchy, authentic dialogue and an energetic sense of pacing throughout “Hot Mess.” Although there’s little doubt of Lena Dunham’s influence when it comes to the bracing bluntness of Loz and her friends Rachel (Kendra Murphy) and Gen (Julia Robertson), as well as her use of static framing to show them at a standstill a la “Tiny Furniture,” the writer/director displays a distinctive voice that when paired with Gaul, a musical comedian by trade, make Lauren impossibly engaging even when the character might not want to be alone with herself. She does find a potential mate in Dave (Marshall Campbell), whose steady job and aspirations of owning a home give her the vapors upon meeting at a party, but Coleman’s genius shines in showing how illusory every bit of a progress can be in Loz’s life when she’s constantly putting too much thought into how it’ll end.
Gaul is completely disarming as Loz, a joy to watch untangling everything that’s going on in her head at any given moment, and though “Hot Mess” leads with a ribald sense of humor, there’s an inherent sweetness to it, particularly in the relationships Loz has with her friends and her mother (Zoe Carides) who offer tough love and well-intentioned yet occasionally ill-considered advice. A zesty score from Jack Hambling and Tom O’Dea and sharp editing from Lara Benwell and Rolando Olalia contribute to a fun, propulsive rhythm that highlight how out of sync Loz feels in her own life and while Coleman wisely resists any plot contrivances to give her lead some major victory, it is seeing the small yet important steps Loz takes to get her groove back that make “Hot Mess” feel so incredibly satisfying.