There are many definitions thrown around in Josh Lawson’s “The Little Death,” a wildly amusing sex farce built out of a series of loosely interconnected vignettes, each revolving around a certain fetish. During the course of the film’s 96 minutes, audiences are introduced to such terms as dacraphilia (arousal by crying) and somnophilia (arousal by watching someone sleep), if one isn’t already familiar, but where Lawson’s observation proves particularly keen is how unfamiliar the partners in each couple Lawson presents — mostly in longtime, committed relationships — are with each other in terms of their most base needs, leaving the writer/director plenty of room for awkward situations and big laughs.
While the film’s title refers to the slang term for orgasm, you see every one of the characters die a thousand little deaths trying to please their significant other or themselves. There’s Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie (Kate Mulvany), a couple whose therapists’ suggestion to spice up their relationship with roleplaying backfires when Dan becomes more stimulated by the thought of a career in acting than getting his girlfriend in the mood, while others like Rowena (Kate Box) and Phil (Alan Dukes) refuse to tell their spouses Richard (Patrick Brammall) and Maureen (Lisa McCune) what turns them on – the aforementioned dacraphilia and somnophilia, respectively – and go to great lengths to embed their secret desires into their regular routine. Notably, Lawson gives himself the most difficult high-wire act of all the actors, playing Paul, a man caught between a rock and a hard place in attempting to indulge his girlfriend Maeve’s (Bojana Novakovic) fantasy of being raped.
As a first-time director, Lawson manages all this with startling efficiency, maintaining a sweetly subversive tone and knowing exactly when to get in and out of scenes before they wear thin. With a uniformally excellent and game cast, the film is mostly as light and airy as environments Lawson and cinematographer Simon Chapman place them the characters in, and Lawson never strains for a gag, as willing as he is to push both his actors and the audience out of their comfort zones.
Still, Lawson may have slightly overreached with his own storyline, with Paul’s solution to satisfy his girlfriend’s request tonally jarring in relation to everything that’s preceded it. In the screening I attended, the temperature of the room dropped precipitously after it happened, with Lawson obviously aware of the risk he’s taking since he follows it up with the most romantic of the vignettes, a more or less isolated story involving a sign-language translator asked to interpret a deaf twentysomething’s call to a phone sex line that ends up being rather profound as it transcends the means of communication that so many of the couples in the film have so much trouble with.
Since the same cleverness and sense of daring that led to such an unexpectedly touching denouement is the same thing that led Lawson to attempt to position rape as a grand romantic gesture, it’s difficult not to appreciate what he has done on the whole, though even after sleeping on it, I’m still considering whether the ends justified the means. However, what will likely make “The Little Death” more resonant is how organically funny it is, smuggling in bits of truth about the ways we hide our true selves from one another amidst a sea of well-conceived and executed comic set-ups.