Dating in your mid-thirties is hard enough. The ways of meeting get more awkward. The dating pool gets thinner. And those you do meet tend to come with a lot more baggage than when you’re in your twenties. This is made increasingly more difficult if you’re already a little awkward, socially, so much so that maybe taking a road trip with your new beau, who you’ve known all of a few weeks, doesn’t seem like all that bad an idea. After all, you both get along all right. But romantic getaways tend to reveal all kinds of things you might not have known about one another. Temperaments are tested, and not everyone is suited to pass. And what was that your mom said about him being a murderer? I mean, sure, he said it was an accident, but…
Ben Wheatley, whose 2011 film Kill List I absolutely adored (as much as one can adore something engineered to drive you insane), has crafted a film that, for whatever dark turns the story may take, remains at its heart a pitch-black comedy about the trials one experiences in dating long after, perhaps, you’ve given up on yourself. Lofty ideals have come and gone, and even basic standards seem to be slipping away; simply being with another person is sometimes all it takes. Alice Lowe plays Tina, who still lives with her mother and has all the hallmarks of those people still very much in a state of arrested development. She’s very sweet, but given to rather extreme mood swings in even mundane situations, and is unreasonably attached to the many hallmarks of her childhood that surround her. Chris (Steve Oram) is in many ways her perfect companion – good-natured, a little awkward, and just a little more rough around the edges than she – but his own mood swings run a little bit rougher than hers, and for as many good qualities as he brings out, he also reveals a hidden, equally-awkward darkness.
While Wheatley directed the picture, and brings a very sharp psychological edge to what could have easily been a sort of toothless comedy of errors, the film was written by Lowe and Oram (with input from Amy Jump, who cowrote Kill List with Wheatley), based on characters Lowe and Oram created. The impetus of the story was the traveling aspect, and the film nicely highlights the scenic areas to which they travel, while also nicely revealing the weird dynamics of campgrounds and the people who populate them. Much of the comedy arises from one party or another taking the public land much more seriously than the other, and again, what would otherwise be a sort of pleasant, but kind of elitist potshot at those people traveling purely by guidebooks and top-of-the-line RVs, gains active tension through the dark undercurrent occupying the film right from the beginning, long before its more violent turns.
Lowe and Oram are great together, playing genuine, puppy-dog affection with complete abandon, letting the pure humanity of their characters shine through without really caring whether they’re perceived as pitiful, sympathetic, laughable, imposing, or unnerving. Their socially awkward qualities mostly result in those uncomfortable encounters that (I’d say over-)populate British comedy, but Wheatley is sharp enough to, at times, twist them in such a way to suddenly make the situation almost suffocating. In lesser hands, their lovable qualities would be suffocated by their more nefarious ones, or vice-versa, but Wheatley balances them so expertly that they come to enhance one another while never quite forming a total picture of these people. What are their pasts? Can they have a future? The edges of the film leave us disoriented and rudderless, never entirely sure of the people with whom we are suddenly involved. Just like dating.
Sightseers comes out in limited release on Friday, May 10th, opening at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema in New York and locally at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre in West L.A.