When we first meet Liam (Matt Bush) and Beck (Renée Felice Smith) in “The Relationtrip,” they’re retreating back from the desert, she with mascara running down her face and he with a bruised right eye and dry blood around his nose, with only C.A. Gabriel’s score to fill in the dead air between them. It’s a far cry from four days earlier when the two were excitedly hatching plans late at night outside a taco truck, having met just hours before at a music salon at some random dude’s house, excitedly contemplating a “hang out like a couple of two cool independent people people” somewhere they’ve never been, preferably with a pool and an espresso machine. Bonded already by their shared lament that others their age have coupled up and grown to serious, they’re revving up the car the next morning, assuring each other there will be “no funny business” and “no deep conversations over storied pasts” over the long weekend and while you’re well aware from the film’s prelude those promises will undoubtedly be broken, the promise of filmmakers Smith and Gabriel only grows stronger as “The Relationtrip” forges ahead, remixing romantic comedy tropes into something wildly original.
Taking inspiration from both the rat-a-tat rhythms of 1930s screwball comedies and Michel Gondry’s handmade inventions aimed at conveying the heart’s wants and desires, Smith and Gabriel craft an effervescent romance of their own in Liam and Beck fight against their instinctual desire for one another to protect themselves and inevitably wind up succumbing anyway, but the true brilliance of “The Relationtrip” emerges from the implicit critique in what’s ultimately a story about the influence of other stories on what the two think they want out of a relationship. Of course, Liam and Beck have grown up watching the same films as the filmmakers themselves, which have given them a platonic ideal that they can’t possibly live up to, and in real time, they check their Facebook and Instagram accounts to see their friends and acquaintances living the life, presumably with all the tougher times edited out by omission. As Liam and Beck’s past history starts creeping into conversations in between the exuberant getting-to-know-you montages and the zippy banter slows down so where Liam and Beck begin truly taking in what the other is saying, they begin to realize they owe it to themselves not to get lost in such illusions, at which point, “The Relationtrip” becomes truly transcendent.
Every element of “The Relationtrip” is bold, from its ideas about what it means to enter into a relationship to to its florid expression of its attendant emotions, whether it be in Smith and Bush’s vivid performances or the eventual involvement of a puppet named Chippy (voiced by Eric Christian Olsen) and literal face peels that bedevil the couple. Smith and Gabriel constantly pivot from where you think things will go, including one major shift halfway through the film that follows through on the ambition that’s come before, if not necessarily the timeline they’ve created for themselves, taking on the whole cycle of a relationship rather than the one they have seemed to have set up specifically for Liam and Beck. While it’s the rare moment in the film that would suggest Gabriel and Smith are working on their first feature, it’s a risk well worth taking since after the slight reorientation, they enable themselves to build to a grand comic crescendo worthy of everything they’ve set up before.
Laced with considerable irony, the least surprising thing about “The Relationtrip” becomes how directly affecting it is when Liam and Beck do all they can to avoid showing emotion to each other. Cinematographer Damian Horan’s fluid and lively camerawork and Gabriel, Smith and Dana Scanlon’s cascading screenplay create a kind of disarming kineticism that tears down walls well before the couple reluctantly starts doing it for themselves, and though Gabriel and Smith have made an unusually dazzling debut in contemplating love in all its complications, “The Relationtrip” is something you can fall for at first sight.