Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
A few years ago, I, under the false impression that two of my friends at the time were intensely irritated with me but were keeping their lips zipped for some unidentifiable reason, produced enough sweat bullets to fill a perspiration magazine and load up an “physiological response to stress” gun as I waited in a digital queue to secure tickets to see a certain British singer-songwriter live in concert. (You know the one, with the big voice and bigger heart, who had circled back into the limelight for her long-awaited third album by releasing a track that made everyone on Earth cry like their pet had just died? Her.)
Believing it was the only way to get back into good graces with my then-pals, I shelled out nearly $400, which made my between-careers bank account shrivel up to a single-digit balance. But it didn’t matter to me in that damp-forehead, sticky hairline moment: I’d do anything to deflate tension, to skirt conflict, to keep the tone smiley, sunny, slack.
That is to say that younger me ran from confrontation, imagined or otherwise, like it was a flesh-eating disease. She feared another person’s disappointment or resentment or minute-to-minute frustration with a deep-rooted fervor. Arguing was not her jam (or her jelly or her peanut butter, she’d laugh — again, to maintain lightness). It still isn’t. And though I’ve grown in wild ways since recklessly spending cash I didn’t really have on people who weren’t outwardly angry with me to go to an event that (sad spoiler alert) I didn’t end up attending all to spare myself an uncomfortable conversation, the idea of actively having it out with someone — bickering in circles with a friend, a romantic partner, a parent — still makes my face flush red.
So you can imagine the kind of experience I believed I would have watching Band Aid, the subtly stunning directorial debut from multi-talented funny-lady Zoe Lister-Jones that follows a troubled couple who wax acerbic about one another’s shortcomings.
Ben (Adam Pally of The Mindy Project, Happy Endings, and Making History fame) and Anna (Lister-Jones herself) are the kind of couple who could snap “kiss my ass!” or “bite me!” at one other and neither of them would shoot the other the anatomical equivalent of the suggestive smirk emoji. Anna’s writing career failed, and life flung her behind the wheel to work as an Uber driver. Adam’s dreams of becoming a bonafide artist never lifted off the ground, and he focuses his dwindling attention on small-scale freelance projects, smoking weed, and fiddling the joysticks on his console controller. Their jabs are sincere — distinctly lacking cheek — and increasing in frequency. They fight about their sex life, the way they communicate, and, most ardently, the stacks of dirty dishes that somehow always fill the kitchen sink. It pushes them into marital woe and into couples therapy. But not even the couch talks and feelings airings-out can mend their cracks, and their counselor (Parks and Recreation icon Retta) essentially does what many secretly think Ben and Anna should do to each other: dumps them.
It’s only when the dysfunctional pair get baked-like-a-batch-of-brownies high at a toddler’s birthday party (told you they were dysfunctional) and start rocking out on kiddie instruments that they take the first step toward possibly patching their problems. The band aid that shields their self-inflicted relationship wounds from future salt happens then, in that hilariously inappropriate and refreshingly light-hearted moment when Ben and Anna lock bloodshot eyes and decide to make lemonade out of their life-and-love lemons. They decide to, in Anna’s words, turn all their fights into songs. And with the help of their quirky cocoa connoisseur neighbor Dave (the impeccable Fred Armisen), who’s also a reclusive recovering sex addict and a pretty solid drummer, Ben and Anna become The Dirty Dishes. (Clearly a much better form of conflict resolution than the mistake I’d made in my past.)
What makes Band Aid so affecting isn’t just that it’s unafraid to display a messy marriage in all its shaggy, scrambled states, or to show how couples can really fight, or to execute an admittedly absurd premise with astounding dexterity. It’s special for what’s woven in the valleys between those prominent peaks, for what lingers in the passive-aggressive punk-rock tunes the Dirty Dishes create.
In the middle of the moments when Anna and Ben are strumming their guitars and exchanging lyrical swipes at one another, we begin learn how they were in love before their downward spiral and what tragedy tossed them to the rough patch that led them to the band. Their jam sessions shift from relatively comical emotional outpourings to an exercise in what it means to fully understand the person you’re committed to and the ways in which you can save the marriage you entered so many years ago.
In her direction, Lister-Jones digs into the darkness and the dirtiness in those cracks. She’s not concerned with making her characters, or the audience watching them, comfortable. She wants raw and real, and she delivers that in a multifarious narrative (that she also wrote) seasoned with psychological poignancy. Band Aid starts out big — blowout arguments, blunts, banging on drums — and collapses inward in the back third before wrapping up smaller and quieter, with a conclusion that cuts straight to the core. To my faint relief, the film isn’t solely centered on rough-and-tumble verbal tussles. To my surprise, it’s also about gender dynamics and politics, relationship roles, depression, anxiety, and so much more. Lister-Jones and the all-female crew of Band Aid (!!!) present each thematic flash in a clever, heartfelt package.
Band Aid, my lucky seventh female-directed film of this year and a new-to-me favorite, is sublimely carried out (Lister-Jones and Pally have the kind of palpable chemistry that not many pairs do) and crutched-up by a strong story, one that sticks close to reality — not answering all the questions, not blaming one half of a two-person problem, always offering empathy, never stinging out on authenticity.
Putting it this way, if Band Aid were a record, it’d be one I’d repeatedly revisit and glean a different meaning from with each new listen. Good thing the stuff the Dirty Dishes spins is actually pretty damn catchy.