By Morgan Cairns
CALGARY – “Hi. My name is Joy. My parents named me after the feeling they had when I was born. That faded fast,” so declares Joy in Unlovable’s opening sequence. With no hesitation to hit the ground running, Joy narrates the pitfalls of her life over a montage of her suicide attempt; tap dancing and eating a cake frosted simply with the word “Ugh” while she waits for the goblet of cough medicine to take its effect, her suicide note stating, “She died doing what loved: wanting to DIE.”
But, as one could expect of a movie longer than 3 minutes, Joy is unsuccessful in her suicide attempt and vomits up a colourful combination of cake and cough medicine. Cue opening credits.
Based on the real-life experiences of Charlene deGuzman (who co-wrote and stars in the film), Unlovable follows Joy as she hits rock bottom, prompting her to pursue recovery for sex and love addiction. After losing her boyfriend, job, and apartment, Joy seeks the guidance of fellow recovering addict Maddie (Melissa Leo) who reluctantly agrees to sponsor her. Maddie also allows Joy to live in her grandmother’s guest house until she can achieve 30 days sobriety, but under very strict conditions. No sex, no sexting, no flirting, no romance, no alcohol, no masturbating; and, most importantly, Joy is not to interact with Maddie’s brother, Jim (John Hawkes), who is their grandmothers live in caretaker. Despite her good intentions, however, Joy struggles to abide my Maddie’s rules; both when she periodically slips back into addiction, and again, when she starts playing drums in a band with Jim. Even though music might prove to be the best way for Joy to cope.
Her first screenplay and leading role, deGuzman discloses that Unlovable got its start when producer Mark Duplass followed her on Twitter.
“It’s a really crazy story,” begins deGuzman. “In 2013, [Mark] started following me on Twitter, and I freaked out. I was so excited because I was such a big fan, so I sent him a DM that was like “Hey, thanks for following me, you’re one of my heroes” and he DM’d back and said if I had anything that I had written, to send it over to him, and at the time, I didn’t have anything. So it wasn’t until a full year later, because I had started my recovery for sex and love addiction, I had written a pilot in five days that was based on my experiences in recovery. So I sent him a message, and was like “Hey I have a pilot that I want to send you,” and then a day later he wrote back and said “I want to meet you, and we’re going to make a movie.””
Coming on board as a co-writer and producer, Duplass brought on co-writer Sarah Adina Smith, who then brought on director Suzi Yoonessi.
“Sarah introduced me to Charlene, and she had said if I was ever going to set up two people on a friend-date, it would be you guys,” recalls Yoonessi. Her second feature film, Yoonessi was instantly drawn to Joy’s story.
“What drew me to the story is that it deals with a very heavy subject, a very difficult subject matter, but it does it in a way that’s filled with heart, and lightness, and hope. So for me, it’s very important that every story I tell people walk away with hope. This story definitely speaks to feeling the power of music, the power of art, and the power of friendship.”
In what could be described as Yoonessi’s signature, Unlovable’s very dark, very adult subject matter, is contrasted with a lightness through almost every other aspect of the film. Taking a cue from Kawaii, everything from Joy’s colourful, almost childlike clothes, to the teddy bears covering every inch of her room, to the hot pink tape Joy uses to keep track of her sobriety, paint a “candy-coloured sheen” over Joy’s recovery. Even her suicide note is written with scented purple marker on cartoon monkey paper.
“I think that what’s interesting, in this moment, is that people who struggle with addiction come in all shapes and all colours; and just because you struggle with addiction, doesn’t mean you see your world in black and white,” explains Yoonessi. “You can still see it as this beautiful and colourful thing.”
deGuzman, who gives a stunning performance as Joy, is also joined by acting heavy weights Melissa Leo and John Hawkes, in the roles of Maddie and Jim, respectively. Hawkes, who also wrote all the original songs in the film, was a natural fit for the reclusive, musically-inclined Jim.
“We wanted to bring someone on who could help us as a collaborator, craft the score and the music within the story,” notes Yoonessi. And once John Hawkes was cast, Melissa Leo soon followed.
“[Melissa Leo] had wanted for years to work with John [Hawkes] on something, so it really was serendipitous,” says Yoonessi.
The central relationship of the film, shy and awkward Jim is the foil to the fearless and extroverted Joy, and Hawkes and deGuzman’s on-screen chemistry is undeniable.
“A few months before we started filming, we had already been meeting up at his house to start writing and practicing the music,” explains deGuzman. “ I feel like that experience before shooting really developed a bond that we had, because of the music, so it was kind of amazing living the movie before we started shooting it, you know?”
A film of a woman “struggling to find her beat”, Yoonessi knew that a top-notch score was imperative in making the film resonate with audiences. With Joy finding a therapeutic outlet in drumming, composer Christopher French made the fitting, though unorthodox, choice of having drums as the key component. A driving force of the film, Yoonessi recounts that French completed the score in only two weeks.
“We originally had someone else do the score, and when I received it, it was all wrong. It was missing the sense of urgency needed to really understand the addiction. So [French] had two weeks to do an entire feature score, and he did an incredible job.”
A true collaborative experience, Yoonesi recounts how everyone involved on the project were equally invested in the films success.
“It really felt like everyone was so passionate about the story. From the costume designer, to the production designer, to the editor. John, Melissa, Chris, everyone was so invested in the story, and telling this story in the right way.”
For deGuzman, the importance of having her story told even goes beyond recovery.
“Growing up, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, and being an actor for 10 years now, I was never going on auditions for lead parts, it was always the friend. So that was more encouraging than anything, knowing I have to write my own part and make my own project, in order for me to get to play the part I want to play,” expresses deGuzman.
“With everything going on right now, it feels like a really good time for not just people of colour, but even Asians; and for me, I want to get even more specific about, like, I’m a Filipina American, and you really don’t see that.”
A life line through her addiction, deGuzman found solace in the script, and ultimately, hopes it will help others feel less alone.
“It literally saved my life, having this to put all my attention and focus on; because I was in recovery, and I was in withdrawal, and it was very painful, but working on this script was saving my life. It was very therapeutic. It kept me going.”
Unlovable screens as part of the Calgary International Film Festival. Screenings will take place at Eau Claire Cineplex on September 22 at 7:40pm and September 25 at 9:15pm, with Charlene deGuzman in attendance. For more information, visit www.calgaryfilm.comCalgary International Film Festival, Charlene deGuzman, CIFF, Duplass Brothers, Eau Claire Cineplex, John Hawkes, Mark Duplass, Melissa Leo, Suzi Yoonessi, Unlovable