As we shift between five neighboring Sydney couples in The Little Death, cutesy title cards pop up conveniently providing the dictionary definitions of their various sexual fetishes. I suppose you might not know that dacryphilia is the scientific term for being aroused by tears. Profiling fetishes like masochism and roleplaying in decidedly quirky setups, the film desperately wants to be an offbeat, “racy” comedy. Unfortunately for writer/director Josh Lawson, the mix of cute and downright disturbing elements makes for a disjointed sex comedy.

The relationships on display are all suffering to some extent from a lack of communication and intimacy. Their designated quirks, however, dominate the characters and hardly allow for clear personalities to develop, which isn’t helped by switching stories every five minutes. In more than one instance, the characters themselves are relegated to placeholders for their fetishes. There’s Paul (Lawson), who is attempting to fulfill Maeve’s (Bojana Novakovic) rape fantasy in the midst of supposed comedic hijinks; Richard (Patrick Brammall) and Rowena (Kate Box) whose clinical sex life takes a turn when Rowena discovers she is aroused by Richard’s mourning tears; Evie (Kate Mulvany) who gets more than she bargained for when she tries roleplaying with her budding actor-husband, Dan (Damon Herriman); and boring, middle-aged Phil (Alan Dukes) who realizes his wife, Maureen (Lisa McCune), is more loving and supportive when unconscious.

For the most part, these storylines are innocuous and the supposedly taboo subject matter hardly taboo. Lawson initially spends the most time with Paul and Maeve, presumably because he thinks a rape fantasy will bring out the best (read: most divisive) response in his audience. To be clear, Maeve wants Paul to rape her (although she insists she doesn’t want to know that it is in fact Paul, for the sake of realistic terror). These situations directly rely on the uneasiness of the audience for their comedy. It’s just a question of whether or not you enjoy feeling uncomfortable. The inclusion of a new neighbor is a half-hearted attempt to connect all five stories. Providing a wealth of untapped irony, he introduces himself to each couple by giving them cookies and informing them that he is, in fact, a registered sex offender. None of the couples pay attention to this admission or react negatively. The sex offender creates some narrative tension, especially in the final scene, but otherwise serves as a measly running joke that—like many throughout the film—goes nowhere.

Lawson’s fifth pair simultaneously offers up the most charming romance and throws a wrench into his film’s hopes of ever having a decent structure. Benefiting from 25 uncut minutes of screen time, Monica (Erin James) and Sam’s (T.J. Power) connection is palpable where the other couples’ chemistry falls flat. A translator for the deaf at a video call center, Monica experiences off-the-charts discomfort when Sam has her call a phone sex operator and sign all manner of raunchy maneuvers. The awkward call continues more as a joke than anything else, as the two—despite the situation—sweetly grow closer and closer. Against the relatively sedate exploits of the other couples, this scene sees sex confronted in its own right rather than within the confines of an established relationship.

In its uncut state, this final meet-cute begs to be a standalone short film. Here, Lawson has managed to condense his polite sex comedy into one irresistible setup that also speaks directly to the film’s larger theme: not sex, but communication. Between its five vignettes, The Little Death has moments of everything from tragedy and romance to slapstick and dark humor, sometimes all in the span of 10 minutes. The effect is, obviously, one of jarring tonal inconsistency. In terms of sheer numbers, Lawson’s ensemble would have benefited from some restraint.

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