Surprisingly grounded for a Sundance dramedy about a struggling Los Angeles couple who turn their fights into songs (with the help of a kooky neighbor played by Fred Armisen, of course), “Band Aid” is a thin but knowing portrait of how marriages stretch, sag, and pull back together. It’s a premise that writer, director, producer, star, and lyricist Zoe Lister-Jones knows from first-hand experience, as she and husband Daryl Wein have collaborated on a number of different films together. From scrappy winners like “Breaking Upwards” to undercooked misfires like “Lola Versus,” they’ve never been shy about blurring the line between their personal and professional lives. How ironic that Lister-Jones only finds her voice now that she’s flying solo for the first time.
She plays Anna, a part-time Uber driver and a full-time “dish nazi” who shares a small house — and a profound sense of dissatisfaction — with her husband Ben (Adam Pally), a graphic designer who works from home and never cleans up after himself. She wants a kid, he wants to play video games. She wants him to apply himself, and he wants her to give him more blowjobs. These characters are both so well settled into their gender norms that initially it’s hard to take them seriously, but the energy between Pally and Lister-Jones is so lived-in and authentic that the stereotypes soon begins to seem perversely intentional. There’s a bleeding wound at the heart of their relationship, and neither Anna nor Ben is is willing to acknowledge it, let alone try and sew it shut. They’re miserable, they’re fighting all the time, and the worst part is that they could probably go on like this forever.
And then, somewhere between a bunch of Holocaust jokes and a birthday party for their friend’s one-year-old baby, Anna and Ben start shouting “fuck you!” at each other. Over and over and over again. But just when it seems like the two of them are stuck in a profanely infinite loop, Ben adds a little melody to his swearing. She does the same. It’s almost like they’re harmonizing.
The next thing you know, they’re digging their guitars out of the garage and jamming away, improvising catchy fight songs (mercifully more Liz Phair than Rachel Platten) that allow them to communicate their grievances better than they ever could in therapy. With some help on drums from a guy named Weird Dave (Armisen as the super-friendly sex addict next door), the couple is soon taking their act to local open mic nights. It’s easier to sing “Our love is true / but I don’t want to fuck you” to a sparse crowd of strangers than it is to say it your partner. And so Anna and Ben stop fighting. They start talking about their futures like they’re not afraid of them.
“Band Aid” is a bit clumsy out of the gate, but it settles into a laid-back groove thanks to Lister-Jones’ relaxed storytelling and the hugely believable dynamic between she and Pally. The bond between Anna and Ben achieves a real degree of specificity as it rolls along, their slanted senses of humor and low-key Jewishness (which is present but irrelevant in a way that movies almost never allow it it to be) anchoring these characters to a recognizable. The patter between them is seldom laugh-out-loud funny — the whole film is made to exist within a middle register, like a casual indie jam that’s more verse than chorus — but it’s warm and witty without feeling the least bit self-conscious, and you can feel the moments when Anna and Ben really start to hear other.
Sometimes, that’s because they’re yelling. Lister-Jones lays it all out there. The sore spot at the center of this story might be nauseatingly familiar, but every couple who deals with it has to deal with it for themselves. While much of “Band Aid” feels more captured than directed, the scene in which Anna and Ben throw down is as raw and real as it gets, Lister-Jones’ camera stalking the duo around their house as they reduce it to a war zone.
The movie has nowhere to go from there (it’s maddening to watch the remarkably straightforward sequence in which Ben’s mom, played by Susie Essman, defangs the drama by explaining it all away), but the bridge hardly matters when the rest of the song is already stuck in your head. Every couple faces setbacks, but the sweet and sincere “Band Aid” — however forgettable it might be — makes a convincing case that relationships are all about how you heal from them.
“Band Aid” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.