There has never been a sadder sight than the moment in “Unlovable” when a plate of pierogies tumble into a shower being taken by Joy (Charlene deGuzman), who despite the name is about to reach her lowest low. The pierogies don’t find their way into the tub on their own, of course, being thrown in by her boyfriend Ben (Paul James), who while being focusing on his career far more than her, knows enough that when pierogies show up in the fridge, it’s indicative that Joy has gone to a local Polish bar to drink and hook up, and since he wasn’t with her to grab the pierogies, he knows the person she was hooking up with wasn’t him. The pierogies are just the first thing to fall in Joy’s life over the course of 24 hours, which sees her kicked out of her apartment and losing her job as a kids’ TV show for showing up late one too many times.
Thankfully, Joy doesn’t hunger for food, yet most all of her troubles are connected to a voracious sexual appetite, which is far more difficult to quantify for her personal well-being and becomes the stuff of compelling comedy from director Suzi Yoonessi, working from a script penned by deGuzman, “Buster’s Mal Heart” writer/director Sarah Adina Smith and Mark Duplass, inspired loosely by DeGuzman’s personal experience. As one might suspect from all the talk of “pierogies” (apparently chosen as a symbol of infidelity just because it’s a funny word), “Unlovable” doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it is nevertheless substantive while retaining a playfulness that one might associate with deGuzman’s popular YouTube channel.
In fact, as you watch Joy carry on with a series of sexual partners at the start of the film, bursting with bright colors and a twinkly pop score, you realize this might be the best way in to tell a story about sexual addiction, instantly diverting in the same way you imagine that Joy experiences these fleeting encounters, exciting in the moment but ultimately hollow when neither you nor her know the names of who she’s sleeping with or need to since they’re unlikely appear again. However, after reaching rock bottom, Joy starts grasping for names, eventually saying hers at a sex and love addicts anonymous meeting where she meets Maddie (Melissa Leo), a wizened member of the group who doesn’t want the responsibility of becoming her sponsor, but gives her a place to stay at her mother’s house. Once there, she becomes friendly with Maddie’s estranged brother Jim (John Hawkes), a socially awkward musician whose stern demeanor might just be what Joy needs to stay on a 30-sex detox while his reticence allows the talkative twentysomething to gab as much as she wants.
With Hawkes and Leo bringing their considerable gravitas (and clearly having a good time in lighter fare than usual), deGuzman can go as big as she wants with Joy and between her 100-watt smile and an obvious comfort in her own skin, she’s has a natural radiance in her first feature leading role. She sets the tone for the film’s ingratiating casualness, which lets the friendship between Joy and Jim unfold organically with pinches of cinematic magic sprinkled here and there, such as when the two have enough of a mindmeld to start communicating via music, cheekily subtitled with what they’re saying. (She’s turned on to the drums, while he plays guitar.) It seems like a similar symbiosis occurred between deGuzman and Yoonessi as a distinctly loopy sense of humor is embedded into the style as strongly as it is in deGuzman’s performance and conveys a perspective on sexual addiction that is refreshing both in its irreverence and honesty. “Unlovable” may be about someone who’s a work-in-progress when it comes to being embraced, but the film itself is very much ready for your affection.
“Unlovable” plays at SXSW on March 13 at the Alamo Lamar E at 9:15 pm.