For some reason, independent movies, especially the current wave of mumblecore with its earthy existentialism and waxy photographic quality, have the reputation of somehow being more “real” or “honest” than movies in the mainstream. Because these smaller movies arrive at some emotional truth more directly, they don’t have to dodge movie stars or CGI monsters. But watching a movie like USC grad Jay Gammill‘s “Free Samples,” which proudly wears its indieness on its sleeve like a badge of honor (when it’s really more of a disfiguring war wound), all you get are feelings of artificiality. It’s so phony and forced and cloying and cute that you wonder how anyone could misdiagnose a movie like this as being more representative of the human experience than, say, something with werewolves or Tom Cruise.
The initial red flag gets raised when the actual plot (as much as there is one) kicks in – Jillian (Jess Weixler from “Teeth”), a drunken, promiscuous mess who put an engagement on hold and dropped out of law school to investigate her artistic proclivities (one of the movie’s better jokes is that she stinks at everything art form she tries), is asked to man an ice cream truck for the day. Her best friend, the ice cream truck’s usual operator Nancy (Halley Feiffer from “Bored to Death“), has taken the day off to hold an intervention for her alcoholic brother and Jillian, hungover from the night before and in no shape to do anything but maybe throw up and make indie movie quips, agrees to park the ice cream truck somewhere and hand out free samples. That’s pretty much the full extent of the narrative. Somehow someone decided this was enought to sustain an entire movie.
Jillian parks the truck in the most uninhabited stretch of Los Angeles imaginable and talks to various characters as they come up for their free sample of ice cream (only chocolate or vanilla). It’s a pretty nifty take on the whole “one location” edict that guides many micro-budgeted films, but admiring a movie’s technical constraints and enjoying the actual movie are two very different things, and for most of the film’s brief running time, it’s an absolute slog.
It’s not Weixler’s fault, either. She equips herself quite well — she’s got a snappy wit and you get the sensation that a lot of the movie’s dialogue would have felt gummy and unusable coming out of another actor’s mouth. She’s got charm to spare, and is even more lovable when she’s being self-deprecating (there’s a running gag about how bad her boobs look in her too-tight t-shirt). Her interactions with the various customers, too, are pretty funny, although a little of it goes a long way, and you can see how easily “Free Samples” would (and should) have worked in short film form.
The problem is that structurally the movie becomes very start-and-stop, dependant on the skill and dexterity of the actor who decides to stop by the desolate parking lot where her ice cream truck is stationed. Devoid of definitive narrative rhythm, the movie becomes vignette-y, and since there’s no escalation of drama, stakes or tension, all those vignettes amount to very little. The movie just kind of slaps around like a dying eel, and the murky digital photography, which makes it look like it was shot through John Hammond’s amber cane, doesn’t help things either.
You can tell that the filmmakers thought they were being incredibly clever, or cute, or whatever. The usually enjoyable Jason Ritter stops by to enact a fantasy he’s always had – to tend to customers while bottomless (the joke ends up being, ahem, limp); Tippi Hedren (yes, from “The Birds“) shows up for a lengthy monologue about how vain she is; and Jesse Eisenberg, who made a brief appearance in the opening of the movie, returns to show what a decent, nebbish, ultimately likable guy he is (you want to stand up and yell at the screen, “You were in ‘The Social Network!’ You’re better than this!”). These are minor distractions. For most of the movie you feel like you’re trapped in an ice cream truck without air conditioning.
The climax of the movie, if we’re really going to even call it that, feels like a cheat too – it’s a showdown between Jillian and her ex-fiancé and it comes out of nowhere, the emotional equivalent of a deus ex machina. It’s also incredibly clunkily staged (it doesn’t help that in “Free Samples” there is no visual or meteorological variety – it all takes place on one cloudless afternoon) and doesn’t resonate because we are never really given a full picture of who this character is, just what we can drag out of her via her various awkward social interactions and admitted character flaws (she seems a couple of drinks shy from being a full-blown alcoholic). So what’s meant to be cathartic is more confusing than anything else.
And it’s a shame, too, since so many of the actors are likable and have a strong presence on screen. Weixler made a splash in “Teeth” and was never able to capture that again, so it’s great to see her really shine in something like this. It’s just that her light is smothered out by all the cloying sentimentality and indie movie bullshit – the jangled indie rock score by Seattle band Say Hi, the number of forehead-smacking coincidences (think about how many characters have to be directed at a single ice cream truck in the middle of nowhere), the way that everyone is cool and detached and hey, by the way, you should come see my band, we’re really good. “Free Samples” is a movie that they should sell at the checkout line in Urban Outfitters; it’s antiseptically indie to a toxic degree. And comes across as just as phony as anything in “Battleship.” [D+]