By Elias Savada.
Listen, I have three vices. Movies. Craft beer. And genealogy.
Shortly after Justin Lerner’s second feature, The Automatic Hate, begins, there’s an uncomfortable meeting between socially awkward Alexis Green (Adelaide Clemens), an amateur stalker, and Davis Green (Joseph Cross), a bearded chef for a casually refined Italian café in Boston. According to her, they’re cousins, apparently of the first variety. Like the hundreds of people I’ve dropped the cousin line (always of a much more distant relation) on in the 30-plus years I’ve been collecting family members on my tree, the reaction by Davis (who knows his father is an only child) is not all that unusual in its WTF disdain. “I don’t have any cousins.” Family isn’t all that important to some folks. That he has no cousins is a common misinterpretation of life. Go back more than one or two generations in your family, and you realize that everyone has cousins, but you just might not know (or care) who they are. The beguilingly pushy Alexis insists on a relationship. Boy, do they get one.
And so the mystery begins.
Lerner, the son of two developmental psychologists, uses some of his own family background in the script he co-wrote with Katharine O’Brien, also the film’s supervising art director. The legacy psych profile and some Ivy League connections are writ on Davis, who resides with his girlfriend Cassie (Trueblood‘s [2008-14] ginger-haired vampire Deborah Ann Woll), an emotionally temperamental ballerina. As for Alexis, she hails from fictional Dunstan, New York, a sleepy upstate New York town in the Finger Lakes region that probably is a stand in for Dryden, a stone’s throw from Cornell University, which happens to have been where Lerner graduated with a Theatre Arts degree. That was in 2002, exactly 30 years after I graduated that institution with the same degree. Most of the film was shot in Oneonta, Cooperstown, and on Aunt Karen’s Farm (no relation, I assume) in Mt. Vision, New York.
After snooping around his parents’ basement for evidence, he confronts his ailing grandfather Howard and the truth spills out. “We do not talk about Joshua,” he pushes out at the young man, realizing he has already said too much. Next up in the interrogation lineup is Dr. Ronald Green (West Wing‘s [1999-2006] Richard Schiff), Davis’s taciturn father and a New York City college professor teaching human development, asked if he pigeonholed family history information. The reply, “Leave it alone!” only eggs the son on further.
Let the sleuthing continue, upstate.
Alexis’s side of the family owns a thrift shop with a side business of medical marijuana. And Uncle Josh (Ricky Jay) and his wife Sarah (Catherine Carlen) are a handful of crazy, with a side of alternative lifestyle. According to the girls (Alexis has two sisters, played by sisters Yvonne and Vanessa Zima), talking about the family disconnect is verboten. And they giggle in a rather happy-uncomfortable way when Davis asks if they have boyfriends.
Maybe it’s too cheap a writer’s trick, but a big brotherly tic is that both men do the Times crossword puzzle in pen. It’s harder to erase the errors that way.
The discomfort level increases dramatically after Alexis and Davis watch a secret home movie, although they seem to be taking their cues from the title of a 1964 Elvis Presley musical comedy. The mixing bowl of feelings in Hate gets served well by the behind-the-camera talent, as Lerner has brought back many technicians from his audience-pleasing 2010 feature, Girlfriend, including cinematographer Quyen Tran (who makes every shot a sumptuous dish), editor Jeff Castelluccio, costume designer June Suepunpuck, and casting director Brad Gilmore. There’s also a common theme between both films involving a discomforting look at volatile relationships between unlikely companions.
The Automatic Hate examines with brilliant resonance a decades-long unease within a family, the relationships that develop alongside the angst of two siblings, and the uncomfortable group gathering that brings it all tumbling out, save for an elephant or two hunkering about the room. You can sense the pachyderm stampede, but the screenplay still manages to toss another grenade into an already fascinating, character-driven story.
Clemens, best known for her Tawney Talbot character on SundanceTV’s Rectify (2013- ) and as the star of 2012’s Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, has an uncanny likeness, in an earthy way, to Michelle Williams and Allison Pill. Boy, does she nail her new role, giving a vibrant performance with a subtle, borderline-deranged vibe. Actor Cross subdues his character with a near fatal case of fear and desire that gnaws at the heart. Truth or dare might undo him in the end.
Lerner pushes the movie’s watch-your-back tension to near obscene yet still restrained levels. The film even gave me pause about my genealogical quests – an apprehension of finding dark issues in an ancestor’s past. The Automatic Hate is a powerful family tale with more than a few warts in hiding, whether in the damp woods of upstate New York or the dark alleys of Boston. It’s quite the family feud.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.