Unlovable (Review)


Written by Charlene deGuzman, Sarah Adina Smith, and Mark Duplass
Directed by Suzi Yoonessi

We’re back again with the second of the three 2018 CAAMfest screenings, this time we’re covering Unlovable, another film that’s written by the lead actress and filled with plenty of raw emotions on screen.

Charlene deGuzman is Joy, who seems like a nice young girl except for the part where she’s trying to kill herself during the opening as her life is a mess. She fails, thank goodness (it’s not one of those movies, where a dead actress is narrating everything!), but we learn that she suffers from sex and love addiction. For those not too familiar with these things, it seems like something that would be very hot, but in reality it is people compulsively going on binges with whoever is available, even if they are the most unappealing people you can imagine. Joy generally stops by the bar, gets beyond wasted, and soon is all over whoever she can get her hands on. That’s a problem because she’s in a relationship and her binges are also making it hard for her to get to work on time.

After the latest round causes her to get dumped and thrown out by her boyfriend, she goes to a 12 step program (it is stated that she’s tried this several times before but it has never stuck) She strikes up a friendship with a woman named Maddie (Melissa Leo), but she refuses to be her sponsor. Only after another binge where Joy wakes up in the morning after a bachelor party where the polaroids reveal quite a lot went on with quite a few people (and one of them gives her a wad of cash), Maddie agrees to sponsor her and put her up in her grandmother’s shed. She must completely detox which means no drinking, sex, texting, sexting, masturbating, or generally any physical contact for 30 days. That proves to be a lot harder than it sounds for poor Joy.

Maddie doesn’t live at her grandma’s, but her brother Jim (John Hawkes) does. He’s a burnt out frustrated musician that takes care of their grandmother, but Maddie and Jim don’t do much communicating to each other. At first it seems like Joy might be tempted by this older guy (and it looks like she might be), but their connection develops because both of them love music. Jim has a drum set and Joy used to play drums in school (she is an actress/musician/performer much like Charlene deGuzman in real life, since she is based on herself!) and tries to sneak in some playing. Jim is at first upset, but later gives her music to listen to as “homework” before he agrees to some limited jam sessions.

Jim is not emotionally all there, but not in a way where he doesn’t care, it’s because he doesn’t understand and thus doesn’t realize a lot of the emotional problems that are happening around him. Not only with Joy, but the problems with his sister Maddie as well. Jim’s emotional non-understanding is in stark contrast to Joy, who is pretty much all emotions. The dichotomy plays off each other well, and while neither is the traditional best companion for each personality type, they develop an understanding and bond that connects them. Their music jams are fun, there was a lot of original music created for the film and even a music video that plays during the credits.

The time alone in the shed gives Joy time to reflect on her life and what may have contributed to her problem. She tries to keep busy by throwing herself into creative endeavors, including painting and the musical collaborations with Jim. Her time isn’t perfect, she does have slip ups and multiple times has to erase the numbers counting up to 30 days back to 0. I appreciated that it wasn’t a completely smooth ride into recovery nor did she just have one slip up and was back on track, she falls several times and that was the most realistic part. I have far more familiarity with twelve step programs and addiction recovery than I would care to, and I know it is a messy business that isn’t solved quickly and permanently.

Overall, Unlovable was a nuanced look at addiction and recovery that helped shed light on aspects rarely covered. Scenes like the one with Joy alone growing increasingly anxious and desperate to do something to try to feel normal even as it leads to a bigger crash were fantastic. Charlene deGuzman told us afterwards she wrote the original drafts of the scripts while doing the recovery detox Joy is doing in the film, the story itself being one of her creative outlets that Joy also follows. This gives Unlovable a rare distinction as being written while in the midst of the subject it is talking about while not being a directly diary or biography. The first hand experience is evident, and even with the additional characters added with their own arcs, the essential main story of Joy facing her problems for real is the main entrée we all crave. As I mentioned in my review of White Rabbit, the only ding to Unlovable was watching it right after that film, White Rabbit being far more rawer in emotion made me wish Unlovable was a bit more direct without the extra layers on top. But it is still a great film and worth checking out!

Rated 8/10

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