You’ve seen this all before, and that’s the cheery joke driving C.A. Gabriel and Renee Felice Smith’s amusing feature directorial debut, “The Relationtrip.” Clearly a passion project for the real-life couple, the pair wrote, directed, and produced the film, with Smith also stepping in front of the camera for one of the film’s lead roles. (Gabriel also composed music for the feature.) A wicked spin on the often played-out world of indie romantic comedies, “The Relationtrip” packs every conceivable genre trope into a neat 90 minutes, and then happily upends them.
Beck (Smith) and Liam (Matt Bush) are typical LA hipsters — he does something with video games, she works in a cafe, they meet at a “salon de music” held in someone’s living room. After their awkward meet-cute, Liam and Beck take to a taco truck to get to know each other better, and while alternately flirting and making fun of every other couple in their life, decide to chuck it all and take a trip together. “No funny business,” they demand. “No deep conversations over storied pasts,” they promise.
In fact, don’t even call it a relationtrip; it’s a “friendship friend trip.” It’s a readymade rom-com storyline, but can you say the film turns it into something different without embracing the cliches the film works against? As Beck and Liam take their desert road trip, the pair’s eventual romance seems fated and forced. One moment, they’re commiserating about Instagram engagement announcements, the next they’re giddily posing for their next social media post.
As the road trip rolls on, “The Relationtrip” gets weird. Not cute-silly weird, but clever-smart weird, all bolstered by Smith and Bush’s fun and easy chemistry. Beck and Liam soon reveal scads of insecurities, both to the audience and each other, that begin to literally manifest themselves. Beck’s bad feelings about her body are voiced by a puppet named Chippy who works as a creepy stand-in for all her poor choices in life, while Liam’s overwhelming mommy issues reveal themselves in the form of an actual giant mother. And that’s just the start of the wacky surprises “The Relationtrip” has in store for its audience.
As Beck and Liam unearth some hard truths, their relationship ratchets up until they’ve covered the full spectrum of modern love over a single long weekend. It’s fun but the joke quickly wears thin, and “The Relationtrip” is stuck bouncing between two high-concept ideas, without going all in on either. Smith and Gabriel clearly know their genre and have unique ideas as to how to pillage it for fresh entertainment, but their resistance to fully embrace one idea over the other holds “The Relationtrip” back from really subverting its material. They’ve seen it all before, but “The Relationtrip” doesn’t have the courage of its recycling convictions.
“The Relationtrip” premiered in the Narrative Feature Competition section at the SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.