“How to Cheat,” Amber Sealey’s intriguing sophomore feature following her directorial debut “A Plus D,” looks like an annoying retread of DIY tropes until it manages to defy them. The opening scene finds Mark (Kent Osborne) bouncing around his Los Angeles backyard in his birthday suit, striking a comical “seize the day” pose before heading off to his droll job as the driver for a car service. With his goofy demeanor masking a deeper yearning to enjoy life, Mark initially resembles the star of Joe Swanberg’s “Uncle Kent,” a 40-year-old bachelor also played by Osborne. Fortunately, Sealey hasn’t made a sequel set in Swanbergville. “How to Cheat” travels much deeper than that.
Unlike Osborne’s “Uncle Kent” character, Mark actually has a life, if not a particularly great one. In between shuttling clients around town, he adheres to a strict schedule for sex that his wife, Beth (Sealey), regularly enforces. Their unsuccessful attempts to get her pregnant introduce an awkward tension to the couple’s relationship, particularly due to the lingering grief caused by a miscarriage Beth experienced a year earlier. Minutes before dashing off to work, she forces Mark to engage in a mechanical quickie, presumably a usual scene in their household. “It’s like washing a dog in a bathtub,” he complains to a friend.
Initially, Sealey uses this scenario to construct a rambling comedy with flashes of subversive wit. Revealing Beth’s miscarriage to the same friend, Mark makes the absurd claim that he senses the dead infant in the room when the couple has sex. “Get an exorcist,” comes the reply. Instead, he concludes that he should have an affair.
It’s here that “How to Cheat” invites comparisons to “The Freebie,” Katie Aselton’s grim marriage drama about a young couple who decide to try out an open relationship. However, Mark’s motivation runs much deeper than simple horniness. “I would love to feel guilty,” he tells his therapist, expressing an apparent hope to enliven his life by courting danger.
At first, he has little success. Landing a handful of dates through the Internet, he routinely owns up about his intentions and scares off one prospect after another. He finally gets his groove back by meeting the strangely alluring Louise (newcomer Amanda Street, in a fascinatingly offbeat role), a woman initially uncool to Mark’s scheme before relishing the opportunity to exploit his desire.
Shot on digital video with a scrappy, handmade look, “How to Cheat” has plenty of rough patches, including an on-the-nose sequence in which Mark drapes himself in toilet paper and stumbles around the house as a mummy. But the quirk is overtaken by the larger dramatic scope. Sealey unapologetically takes the mold of a microbudget comedy in several directions, using the couple’s unstable marriage to stabilize the pace. When Mark lands in the sack with Louise, the liaison leads to unexpected results, and “How to Cheat” adopts the eerie atmosphere of a sexual thriller. Then it retreats back to the marital tension where it began, setting the stage for a third act twist loaded with provocative uncertainty that gives the movie a captivating edge.
Sealey’s patient screenplay has a clean, intelligent structure that could easily become watered down for Hollywood treatment, but she defies expectations with a suitably ambiguous conclusion. From Mark’s conundrum, the story shifts to Beth’s point of view, and her reaction to their unfolding drama makes it unclear whether her husband actually cheated or inadvertently got something right.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering at the L.A. Film Festival’s narrative competition, “How to Cheat” is destined to play well on the remaining festival circuit this year and possibly find its way to a VOD deal, which is its best bet at getting broader attention.
criticWIRE grade: B+
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