Unlovable is a reminder that non-addicts may never know the intensity of that desire or the deprivation that occurs when it goes unfulfilled.
Ever since invisible spiders crawled all over a detoxing Ray Milland in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, addiction narratives have been difficult to credibly execute. Addiction seems like such a cinematic subject. Self-destruction followed by a redemptive arc is built into any story of recovery. Over-dramatization typically dooms the telling of this most human of tales. Filmmakers usually avoid the day-to-day repetitive bleakness of addiction, harkening for epiphanies that rarely seem genuine. Unlovable, directed by Suzi Yoonessi from a script by the film’s star Charlene deGuzman, Sarah Adina Smith and Mark Duplass, leans into that bleakness to offer a fucked up and funny portrait of a sex and love addict searching for intimacy in the City of Angels.
deGuzman plays Joy, a young actor in Los Angeles on the verge of losing her boyfriend, Ben (Paul James) and her job performing on a children’s television show. Ben’s affections seem shallow at first, but as the intensity of Joy’s addiction is realized it becomes clear where the strain on the relationship lies. He leaves her, and Joy employs the time-tested inclination of all addicts of all veins: she makes matters worse. There’s a suicide attempt, a blackout, a gangbang and payment for services rendered when the best man at the bachelor party believes she is a prostitute.
Demoralized, Joy calls Maddie, a woman she heard share at a sex and love addicts twelve step meeting. Maddie is the type of woman who has tempered her own insanity through diligence and adherence to spiritual principles. She has seen the other side of crazy, and no one plays such a role as well as Melissa Leo. Maddie hasn’t had the greatest luck sponsoring other addicts, but she puts Joy up at the guest house in her ailing grandmother’s home. There are the usual ground rules: no communication with exes, no masturbation and no contact with the residents of the main house, Nana (Ellen Greer) and her caretaker, Maddie’s brother, Jim (John Hawkes). With strips of pink masking tape – one for each day – Joy marks her success adhering to the first two, but like anyone told to avoid the forbidden, she yearns for contact with the people in the house. An open garage door and an exposed drum kit offer the opportunity. Things do not go well at the start.
Jim has an unpleasant mental cocktail, a little bit OCD with an Asperger’s chaser, but he likes to lay down his own tracks in the garage and needs a drummer to take him to the next level. He offers Joy a set of drumsticks as a peace offering and sets down a few of his own rules. She must take his direction. No improvising. No creative collaboration. Joy, being an adorable force of nature, wears him down and a strange friendship commences.
The story unfolds according to form. The collective fears and mental anguish of all the main characters twists into a brew that forces them to face secrets, voice unspoken conversations and grow despite themselves. Joy has a chance at redemption, but consistently removes those pink slips from the wall. She just can’t put enough time together. But it doesn’t matter that you’ve seen this story before because you haven’t seen deGuzman before. In Joy she has created the type of woman who dots the I’s in her suicide note with hearts. She perpetuates a Manga cuteness while searching for something to fill an emptiness in her soul. Her evolution from teddy bear hoarder to someone more substantial separates the movie from the typical addiction narrative.
It’s deGuzman’s movie, but she is amply supported by Leo and Hawkes. After mastering kindness in the earlier part of his career, Hawkes has more recently turned to conveying edgier personalities onscreen. Jim has more of a suburban volatility attributed to his mental illness. His tenderness needs to be earned if one can withstand his “don’t touch my stuff” exterior. Jim literally has an inside voice and an outside voice. There is a softness to his register when he cares for his Nana in the house and a gruffness in the garage with Joy. Hawkes slowly merges the two the longer Joy is in his life and his loyalty to her becomes boundless.
Addiction is often seen as a weakness rather than the unfettered pursuit of invincibility it really is. It is the pursuit of that one moment that made the addict feel whole that occurred while in the throes of their drug of choice. It is the unrepeatable high, the dragon that is chased until death. Unlovable is a reminder that non-addicts may never know the intensity of that desire or the deprivation that occurs when it goes unfulfilled. But, pain is a common language we all speak, and being open to helping others can have a healing effect that feels like a miracle at first, but in reality it’s just human being the best they can be.