Zach Clark’s Modern Love is Automatic is a genre-bending, color-coordinated dram-com with a flair for the absurd and a heart of gold. Clark cites John Waters as his primary influence and the Baltimore shock icon’s stamp is clear on this, Clark’s freshman feature. But it also establishes Clark as a young director with a vision that is informed equally by cult film, punk rock, ‘80s nostalgia, and taboo sexual behavior. In short, Modern Love is totally Clark’s own.
Modern Love tells the tale of a lonely, dead-eyed nurse named Lorraine (Melodie Sisk). She lives in an everytown and dates an everyman, but her style has a timeless edginess that evokes both Betty Boop and Debbie Harry. At work, she doesn’t relate to her gossipy colleagues and she ignores the advances of the resident Dr. McSteamy. At home, in bed, she’s a cold fish who smoothes out all the creases in her sheets. When she finds her boyfriend naked with another woman, she is forced to solicit a roommate. What she gets is Adrian (Maggie Ross), an aspiring model with delusions of grandeur that are even more extreme than her chipper attitude. As Adrian comes to terms with the difficulties of establishing a career in the mall-store modeling world, Lorraine develops an interest in bondage and embarks on a nighttime career as a mistress of punishment.
The performances Clark elicits from Sisk and Ross are effortlessly charming and comic. Their interactions have the feeling of two little girls gleefully role-playing, grabbing costumes from a trunk and ferociously inhabiting characters they have constructed based on their own ideas about adult femininity. The rest of the cast has the affectless acting style found in early Hal Hartley: they say their lines and leave room for the women at the film’s center to brood and flame.
Clark’s previous involvement with SXSW was as the editor of Aaron Katz’s Dance Party USA, but his film couldn’t be any further from the pseudo-genre Katz helped to define (the only common thread is a low-budget). Clark’s film focuses on the aimless twenty-somethings favored by SXSW filmmakers in recent years, but his take on the Gen-Y is something altogether more stylized, closer to characters in a Christopher Guest mockumentary than to anyone we’ve met on a mumblecore screen. At the center is Lorraine, a ballsy heroine who will break your heart with her final, off-key swan song of tentative emotion.
Clark is, indeed, an exceptional editor. He cuts to the beat of harsh jokes and punk music, using video static and candy colored interstitial titles to enhance the jagged contradictions in Lorraine’s life. As a writer and director he has a soft but sure touch, creating highly structured tableau and neatly choreographed conversations but allowing his non-actors to speak freely and imbue their roles with a “we’re makin’ a movie!” glee that is infectious.
With it’s angry score and bondage content it would tempting to call the film aggressive, but Modern Love is Automatic slides down easy as a melted jolly rancher. Because at its heart this stylized fairytale is a character study about a woman for whom love is not automatic. Rather she, and the characters around her, both have to work hard to shed their costumes and achieve something more like intimacy.
— Lena Dunham