SXSW: “Easy Living” delights with great performances, writing

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of SXSW

Adam Keleman’s debut feature, “Easy Living,” is the kind of movie you want to see at SXSW: an intimate indie picture produced by an up-and-coming filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take risks.

The setup of this comedy-drama is one we’ve seen in many iterations before. In “Easy Living,” Sherry Graham (Caroline Dhavernas) finds life is anything but easy. She’s a makeup saleswoman who can’t make ends meet and feeds her alcohol addiction nightly. The closest she gets to a having a boyfriend is through her one-night stands. The only things that keep her going are her self-help books.

Dhavernas, who will be recognizable to viewers of “Hannibal,” shoulders the film with a wonderful performance. She gives Sherry bite and vulnerability in equal measure, constantly engaging no matter what scene she’s in. Her comedic timing is great, and, as Keleman revealed during a Q&A, she contributed Sherry’s tragic backstory to the film, lending her character more gravitas. She and Keleman’s script work hand-in-hand to elevate each other. An “Easy Living” without Dhavernas is unimaginable.

We soon discover Sherry is estranged from her family and a source of disappointment to her elder sister, Abby (Elizabeth Marvel). A dinner at Abby’s house proves awkward and disheartening as Sherry tries to connect with them.

Motivated to finally do right for herself and her family, Sherry resolves to take control of her life by starting a beauty salon and further developing a relationship with a new man, Henry (McCaleb Burnett). Unfortunately, Sherry hasn’t quite thought through her plans, which predictably begin to fall apart.

“Easy Living” is a largely grounded picture with an undercurrent of absurdism. Sherry’s struggles with inadequacy and love are ones people can immediately identify with, but her solutions can be irrational. Then again, people aren’t always so careful, either. Some of her setbacks, though disappointing to her and the audience, are successfully played for laughs. It’s a nice balance which Dhavernas and Keleman’s script achieve by making Sherry’s reactions to her plight funny.

Fate also plays a role in Sherry’s journey. Keleman invites us to wonder how much of our success owes to our choices versus chance. Sherry learns that being in the right place at the right time only comes when she pursues her dreams, and even then, the challenges she faces are unexpected.

Keleman deserves some credit for how the oddball final sequence of the film plays out. Though it is telegraphed early on, the way it plays out is surprising, as well as charming. While the events may feel like a left turn, they contribute to Sherry’s growth in a satisfying, though not immediately obvious, way. Nonetheless, this may be be the most polarizing aspect of “Easy Living,” and its absurdity will make or break the movie for some.

But “Easy Living” deserves a watch even if the ending ends up disappointing simply for the craft of Dhavernas’ great performance. Keleman has made a strong debut, an insightful gem of a film that speaks to the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

“Easy Living”

Running Time: 80 minutes

Rating: NR

Score: 5/5 stars