One of the greatest lessons I received from my film school education was a tossaway bon mot from a faculty advise, upset that I didn’t have time to take a 17th century sculpture class. Seeing my confused expression, she shared, “you can’t break the form until you learn it.” With The Pill, first-time writer/director J.C. Khoury manages to somehow do both and still create a fun, entertaining, and surprisingly effective film.
Not since the western has a genre been so dominated by X’s and O’s than romantic comedies. Rom-coms follow a certain formula, replicated over and over again, mainly because they work. Guy and girl can’t possibly be together until they inevitably are. If websites and newspapers didn’t demand a word count, a perfectly suitable review of New Years Eve would read, “it’s exactly what you think it is.” The Pill takes a lot of these tropes and injects a much-needed dose of humanity. Instead of having the plot device dictate the action of the characters, Khoury lets the individual failings of each of the principals dictate their own messy, crazy fates.
Starting with what amounts to a chamber play, we are introduced to the main characters as they introduce themselves to each other. Fred (Noah Bean) stumbles into Mindy’s (Rachel Boston) apartment from somewhere (the film never tells us, and it doesn’t matter). Over a game of “I Never,” they drink themselves honest, spilling little details about their lives that they feel comfortable sharing with a stranger that they’ll be shortly be intimate with. But when they move to the bedroom, the lies begin to creep out. Eventually, they convince the other (and themselves) that having unprotected sex is a prudent move.
When the sun rises, the romance is replaced by stark reality. The fun, slightly distracted Fred is revealed to be a selfish, anal person who tries to do the right thing but only by him, and does it in the worst ways possible to try and accomplish them. Mindy is a free spirit that never veers into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. She is as sweet as she is naive, which, in situations as potentially dire as this, is a dangerous combination. Neither person is a hero or a villain. They vascillate depending on the situation, telling the kind of lies that you tell to keep the other person “safe” but inevitably makes it much worse when all is revealed. And, as you’d assume, every rock gets turned over eventually, and it can be ugly.
The meet cute essentially occurs at the local pharmacist’s counter, where Fred callously gets Mindy to take one of the two required “morning after” pills (yes, right there at the counter, before he even has a chance to pay for them). After she (rightfully) leaves him standing there wilth a pink circle in his hand, he has to chase her down to make sure she takes the second dose within twelve hours. Thus the clock begins to tick. To throw another wrench in the works, it’s exceedingly possible that Fred has a significant other. And so he tries to balance these two needs for duration of the film’s breezy eighty-three minutes.
At various points, this movie could have gone off the rails, but it’s a credit to the charming performances of the leads and the skill of the director to keep this story grounded. Mindy takes the helpless Fred to her old apartment to pick things up, running in to her despondent roommate. To Mindy, that’s all he is; to Fred and the rest of us, he’s the spurned ex-boyfriend, now coming face-to-face with his replacement. This farcical set-up is punctuated by a moving performance from Al Thompson, who’s far too upset about his loss to become occupied with the new man in Mindy’s life. Instead of anger, he turns to Fred for sympathy, a move that puts the always put-upon Fred even further back on his heels. You will feel the same.
The film’s centerpiece revolves around the dinner table, as most memorable scenes seem to. Mindy brings Fred to a mid-day birthday party for her younger brother, hosted by two French stereotypes who double as Mindy’s parents. After the father (Jean Brassard) grills Fred about his employment opportunities–as soon as they meet–they move to the birthday dinner where the expected awkward humor is replaced by candid barbs of truth. We learn more about Mindy by seeing her in context and we, like Fred, gain great empathy for her. By the scene’s end, Mindy knows that she has someone else in her corner, who will step in and fight when she can’t muster the power. It’s the kind of moment that turns people who are “seeing each other” into boyfriend/girlfriend.
Surely there are people who will see the honesty in this film as a flaw. Fred is not a terribly likeable guy. With his well-quaffed hair and plastic smile, he continually lies and does it terribly. He’s as out of his depth here as a high schooler in the NFL; he’s just trying to get out unscathed. The same goes for Mindy, who’s rationale for letting Fred climax inside of her is because it would make him feel good, with no thoughts of the severity of the decision (even the day after). But these are decent people who have made a serious of small decisions that amount to disaster. We don’t wish for them to get together as much as we hope they just get through it. The audience will see a lot of themselves in these characters. Whether they’d like to admit it is a wholly different conversation.
The shooting ethos, encapsulated in the production company’s name, “Shoot First Entertainment,” leads to some sloppy camera work. One could argue that having shots out of focus lends itself to the overall murky nature of the plot, but when I’m too preoccupied thinking about the focal range to listen to the characters spilling their guts out, that becomes an issue. But when the appropriate ending comes, you’ll be far too invested to really care about the technical aspect.
The Pill is now screening at Quad Cinema in New York City. It will be available On Demand in February, accompanied with an interivew with the writer/director on this very website.