Title: How To Cheat
Writer-director: Amber Sealey
Starring: Kent Osborne, Amber Sealey, Amanda Street, Gabriel Diamond, Paulette Osborne
A dramatic competition title at the Los Angeles Film Festival, writer-director Amber Sealey’s How To Cheat is a seriocomic depiction of the messiness of modern marriage, and the temptation of infidelity. On the surface, a minor sort of thematic companion piece might be something like Kate Aselton’s The Freebie, in which she starred with Dax Shepard as a married couple who, trying to liven up their stagnant sex life, agree to mutual one-night-only, no-strings-attached hall passes, only to find discord and regret in their decision. Sealey’s movie, however, is a bit more subjectively focused and channeled through the male perspective, while also glancingly recalling the sort of Silverlake “diorama-dramas” of multimedia artist Miranda July, though quite without the same precious handmade qualities found therein.
In short, How To Cheat is the story of a married Los Angeles couple, Mark (Kent Osborne) and Beth (Sealey), who seem stuck in a rut, even as they continue trying, unsuccessfully, to conceive a child. The invasive prying and cooing of some friends who are themselves newbie parents certainly doesn’t help matters, and Mark, a limo driver driven to distraction by the stories of sexual conquest of his friend (Gabriel Diamond), turns to online dating. Upfront about his marriage, and desire for a strings-free extracurricular sexual relationship, Mark is met with mostly sneers and slaps. He finally finds a willing receptacle… err, partner, but after his fling with Louise (Amanda Street), Mark finds himself having to tend to that relationship in slightly unexpected fashion — which is in a manner reminiscent, though in far less of a madcap fashion, of the Rachel Boston-Noah Bean comedy The Pill, which recently debuted at the Dances With Films festival. The truth eventually outs, leading to tough choices for all those involved.
Sealey’s low-budget movie is shot in an engagingly raw style, and its performances — rewarded with a Best Ensemble Performance award at the Los Angeles Film Festival — are admirably free of vanity. As an actress, Sealey has a pinch of that same vulnerable charm of Catherine Keener, and a kind of atypical sexiness. Osborne, meanwhile, emanates an oddball sympathetic quality, even when he’s not doing much; he looks like Mark Duplass crossed with Ray Romano, and kind of acts like the same, with perhaps a pinch of Garry Shandling.
So why, then, does How To Cheat never really take sail? Part of the reason is that Sealey is caught up in indie posing. The film opens, with some floppy male nudity, in a manner that says this is fundamentally a comedy, so there’s no need to really take seriously any of its feelings or thematic underpinnings, or certainly Mark’s quasi-articulated fears of becoming invisible to Beth, just needed for fertilization to “complete” their family snapshot. Other cutesy touches unfurl, such as a woman presented to seem like a therapist (Paulette Osborne, Kent’s real-life mother) but that in short order turns out to be Mark’s mom. This bit is never particularly paid off, and when the movie pivots into more serious terrain, then, it just comes across as kind of off-key and false.
For all her evidenced pent-up desire to be a mother, Beth is still something of a cipher as a character, which renders her reaction to Mark’s infidelity wan and problematic. (If the movie wanted to explore this more, that might be interesting, but it comes later in the third act.) Louise, too, is given a bit too big and generous of a leap in unrealistic immediate maturation, and while Street sells it as best she can, it feels very movie-of-the-week-ish — albeit dressed up in nouveau hipster fashion. How To Cheat is a solidly realized indie film that one need not bear any lasting animosity toward, but it doesn’t possess any of the dark or snappish fun one might think its title augers, and neither does it connect or linger in an emotional way. It imparts no particular lessons, it just is.
Written by: Brent Simon