It's only due to the formidable chemistry of its talented leads, Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander, that writer-director Alison Bagnall's "The Dish and the Spoon" doesn't become an overindulgent acting exercise. Bagnall, screenwriter of "Buffalo '66" and the director of "Piggy," constructs a basic two-hander out of flimsy material, finding a few heartbreakingly sincere moments before repeating them several times and running out of steam.
For its first half hour, "The Dish and the Spoon" maintains a promising trajectory of minimalist drama. The opening shot finds Rose (Gerwig) speeding down the freeway in tears, bereft over her husband's infidelity. Shaking with rage, Gerwig introduces an impressive level of attitude to her repertoire, playing a pissed-off loner intent on wiping the floor with her man's other woman.
Nabbing a six-pack and heading to an abandoned Delaware beachhouse, she starts to drink away her sorrows, then runs into an equally alienated British teen (Alexander) who traveled to the states for a romantic encounter before being stood up. "She left me standing like a spoon," he tells Rose, introducing the title's flimsy metaphor, an early sign of trouble. But "Dish" still has a few affecting scenes left.
United by their mutual dissatisfaction, Rose and her unnamed companion run wild in a beer factory, jacking bottles off the conveyer belt while Rose plots her revenge. Imagine "Before Sunrise" with more punk attitude and you get a sense for the tenor of these early exchanges, in which the timid Brit props up Rose's grief by encouraging her violent endgame. Shot on lo-fi digital video, "Dish" effectively conveys Rose's mounting anger, particularly when she blows off steam by calling up her estranged beau and yelling into his ear. (Her best line: "It's your fucking wife, you fuckhead!")
Gerwig, whose star was born at SXSW in micro-budget efforts like "Hannah Takes the Stairs," can pull off this sort of awkward, self-deprecating performance in her sleep. Alexander, a petite, withdrawn performer, makes the ideal complement to her intensely physical style. Unfortunately, Bagnall doesn't give them enough to do for the duration of their shared screen time.
When an unlikely attraction builds between the two characters, the momentum dissipates. By the time Rose finally faces down her foe, "Dish" has lost its one-note narrative thread. Individual scenes maintain an undeniably solemn finish, but they eventually start to feel redundant, as if Bagnall kept hitting the reboot button on her script. The cast of "Dish" gives it polish, but the shine can't obscure its directionless interior.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Praise for Gerwig and especially newcomer Alexander may help their rising careers, but "Dish" probably won't find much of an audience in theatrical release or VOD, due to its derivative premise.
criticWIRE grade: B-