Movie review: Sell By #MGFF20

(image courtesy Sell By)

Cinema, for all the nuance it brings to some of its storytelling, loves extremes.

Especially when it comes to love where we are either treated to the glories and wonders of love true love in all its candy-coloured euphoria or the very darkest, bleakest end of times where the once verdant flowers of romance have withered, burnt and often turned toxic.

Not that many films land somewhere in the ordinary stuff of love, that indeterminate place in the heart of the everyday where love is still present and accounted for in one form or another but struggling to make its presence felt in amongst the drudgery, existential angst and the changeability of living.

It is in this less-visited narrative place that Sell By, written and directed by Mike Doyle, exists offering up the story of a core group of friends, some of whom have found love and are struggling to hold onto it, and others who are trying to work out how to get it in the first place.

Front and centre in this down-in-the-trenches-of-life tale are painter Adam (Scott Evans) and famous Insta fashionista Marklin (Augustus Prew), a gay couple who have been together five years and while still very much in love have reached that point where it’s either tend to the problems cropping up between them and move forward to the next, hopefully happy, phase of togetherness, or move on and call it quits.

Neither of them are admitting to that when we first meet them at an anniversary dinner which rather unconventionally includes one of their BFFs, Cammy (Michelle Buteau) and her new, it is soon revealed homeless boyfriend of three weeks Henry (Colin O’Donnell) who is behaving rather oddly.

They manage to ride that particular moment of dining weirdness through okay and emerge outside, happy in each other’s company and to all intents and purposes, ready for the next five years of their life.

But while the love is there, it’s execution is suddenly leaving quite a bit to be desired.

Adam, who has subsumed his own artistic ambitions to paint for Ravella (Patricia Clarkson), a woman who wants the acclaim and the glamour but not the actual messy act of painting, is realising that he is at a place in his life that he’s not entirely happy with, either professionally or relationally.

Augustus too, though wildly successful to the extent that he is gifted $14,000 coats to promote on his incredibly popular menswear blog, is torn, acting as the medical guardian for his ex Karl (unbeknownst to Adam) and wanting to move on and act like an adult, though he’s not entirely certain what that looks like.

They are not irreparably broken but it is beginning to feel like that, with the big love they share no longer large enough it seems to encompass the changes coming to their lives.

At the same time as they are wrestling with what their relationship now looks like and what it’s going to look like, assuming it survives at all, one of their group of close friends Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) is finding herself in a markedly similar position with husband Damon (Chaz Lamar Shepherd) who has decided that the grass is greener with someone younger and prettier.

Elizabeth is shocked to her core, unable to grasp the fact that her once unassailably romantic relationship has hit the skids after 15 years of gooey-eyed wonder.

For both Adam and Elizabeth, it is a time of reckoning with a lot of big questions to be answered.

Meanwhile, Cammie is wondering why it is she is persisting with Henry who appears to be a freeloader and disinclined to do anything at all about getting a job etc despite her providing with a place to live (with her) and the time and resources to take the steps that he might otherwise not have the ability to take.

The remaining person in their group Haley (Zoe Chao), who comes across at ditzy but is in fact ferociously intelligent is uncertain about what to do with the romantic ardour pouring off her Scott James (Christopher Gray) the student she tutors who’s not very bright but is highly melodramatic and very much in love with her (or so he’s convinced himself).

Sell By sits nicely if a little insubstantially at times in this limbo zone, which is equally at home at the beginning of love where everything is possible but yet to be realised, and its often ill-defined middle where the good and the bad sit juxtaposed with no firm resolution in sight.

While the film does feel a little slight at times glancing off some fairly serious issues with not much in the way of incisive exploration, it is nonetheless a rich, warm and often funny (Buteau is the star performer in this regard though Chao is not far behind) that dares to examine an area of love and life which many films simply don’t tackle.

Doyle does an admirable job of crafting a group of characters who feel authentic, whose travails in life feel relatable if a little over-inflated for narrative or comedic effect, and who keep your attention throughout in a film that says a great deal in the most understated of ways.

The couple at the centre of proceedings, Adam and Marklin are the best developed of all the characters which makes sense since the story largely pivots around them, but there are times when you wish you got to spend more time with Elizabeth, Cammie and Haley and got to know them better.

Still, by and large, Sell By is an appealing delight, a film with a lot of emotionally powerful things to say that hits its mark more often than it doesn’t and which does so in a delightfully languid way that draws you in and keeps you paying attention.

Is love salvageable when it appears the middle has rushed into the embrace of the end far earlier than expected (assuming it was expected at all which, let’s face it, is not something most of us are too keen to dwell on)?

Sell By plays its cards quite close its chest throughout most of its 90 minute run time and while we are treated to a suitably romantic comedy-type ending, the film has a lot of fun and expends a reasonable amount of meaningful heart getting there, reminding us as it does so that even when it seems everything is lost, that there are still choices to be made and that we need to be open to making the right ones at the same time as being brutally honest with ourselves lest we lose something very special far before its time.

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