The Automatic Hate (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would definitely be R for strong sexuality and language
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Deborah Ann Woll, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay, Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima
Director: Justin Lerner
Screenplay: Justin Lerner, Katharine O'Brien
Review published March 18, 2016
I don't hate The Automatic Hate, but I'm not especially fond of it either. It's not easy to pin down the reason why I don't cotton to it using the usual standards by which films are critically measured. The actors are fine, as is the direction, cinematography, and editing. The story elements are bold and intriguing throughout. And yet, it doesn't work for me.
This is a film that keeps me at a distance, not because I'm offended by stories dysfunctional families with sordid issues, but because it plays as an inauthentic one. I don't buy these characters. I don't buy that they'd do what they do, or say what they'd say, in any given moment. In scene after scene, screenwriters are constantly coaxing, pushing, outright shoving these characters along from determined one plot point to the next, and with each progressive instance, I become further removed from caring.
From outside appearances, it would seem daring and audacious in its story, and certainly I enjoy a good mystery with juicy revelations. It's not the story, per se, but the storytelling, that makes The Automatic Hate not come to life for me. The film is about a family, but the way they're used here makes these character feel more like dolls that screenwriters Lerner (Girlfriend) and O'Brien are using to "play house". Each set-piece plot point of their playtime story is coerced into occurring with the kind of forced situations and manipulative dialogue that you'd find employed to get to the sex scenes in an old-school porn flick.
As for what those crazy issues are that the family contends with, I won't reveal in this review, as the The Automatic Hate cashes nearly all of its chips on the big reveals. If you're already clued in on the nature of the mysteries, it's probably not strong enough in other respects to hook you. What I can say is that the story is about a Boston-based chef named Davis Green (Cross, Lincoln) who is approached one day by a woman he's never met before named Alexis (Clemens, The Great Gatsby), who claims she is his first cousin. Davis, who had previously always been told that his stern psychologist father Ronald (Schiff, Man of Steel) is an only child, begins to dig deeper and discovers Alexis may be right. Neither Ronald nor Davis's grandfather Howard (George Riddle, Little Manhattan) will readily admit to anything, and seem to get beyond agitated just by Davis bringing it up, so if he wants answers, he's going to have to head into farm country in upstate New York to see Alexis, and get to the bottom of just what drove a schism through the family that has kept them apart all their lives.
You can sense the themes are spelled out for you right from the scene of Davis' psych professor father, Dr. Ronald Green, giving a lecture to his class about 'nature vs. nurture', as the characters are conflicted about doing what's in their nature to do and the environment in which they perceive the world, and also find themselves compelled by their upbringing with their very different fathers in very different cultural places. Davis grew up in a strict, rigid, and lawful environment, while Alexis' childhood had been more non-judgmental about morality, laissez-faire in attitudes, and a bit dangerous from outside appearances. Their outlook on life is colored by their experiences, but they also have innate impulses that seem to fly in the face of their upbringing.
The setting is ripe for an exploration into uncomfortable subject matter, akin to something we might find Michael Haneke or Thomas Vinterberg approach, but Lerner, while obviously evoking the works of some of these masters of dysfunctional community dramas, finds himself 'caught in the shot' too often. We can always feel him at play, see his arm inside the puppets that are his main characters.
Take, for instance, a scene in which Alexis takes Davis to her father's hideout, where, quite conveniently, he keeps just about every clue the story needs in order to give the main characters an instant knowledge of family history, including having an actual film projector in a hidden attic compartment that Davis finds within seconds upon entering (something Alexis has never noticed before) that is ready to roll with a film reel of home movies that lays out the history of the two brothers and the exact reason for their separation. Or, later, a dinner scene in which an old family relic is trotted out to the family table in order to impulsively and spitefully pour gasoline on the fire that already exists under the surface. Those that are supposed to see it notice it almost instantly, and predictably act according to their characters, but what they say and what they do after this feels like its driving hard to get to a crescendo that doesn't really manifest well. Every build-up to big moments play too convenient, and altogether pushy, in the way they're constructed to things move along.
Although it deals with tricky subject matter, The Automatic Hate isn't overtly trying to be shocking, and for that, at the very least, I'm appreciative. Yes,t's a manipulative film in its use of narrative devices to get to touchy subjects, but it isn't deliberately trying to provoke you into anger, embarrassment, or disgust. In fact, the elements are here to make for a good film, if only Lerner could have figured out a way to get these characters to do something - anything - that a real-life person would have or could have done in their circumstances. It's not that what the members of this family have done to merit their discord is unheard of, as I'm sure it occurs much more often than you'd think, but, in terms of plotting, we whoosh point A to point Z skipping most of the letters in between.
The film teases, toys, and tantalizes, but, ironically, for a film that has psychology, philosophy and human biology as its themes, it never quite grapples with deep-seated, destructive behavior in a way that smacks of relatability. The ring of truth is elusive when you strike too many false notes throughout.
©2016 Vince Leo