Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the 2020 version of the Chattanooga Film Festival went virtual, running from May 22-25. But even though all films and events had to be moved online, the programmers of one of the best genre film festivals in the U.S. managed to put together an impressive roster of movies.
As a general rule, I don’t like squirm comedy. Watching characters caught in situations where they have to deal with socially awkward people who make them uncomfortable is far from my idea of a good time. That is why I am more than pleasantly surprised to find HOMEWRECKER is not the traditional squirm comedy of the type from the last twenty or so years that leave me feeling queasy. While it initially seems like it is going to fall into that category, the film cleverly sidesteps all the pitfalls of the genre, delivering a story that offers up answers to all the questions I usually have with these films about why people would put up with the off-putting behavior of needy, aggressively awkward strangers.
Michelle (Alex Essoe) and Linda (Precious Chong) have a meet awkward in the locker room of their gym when Linda comes to Michelle’s rescue with a tampon. Of course, in the opening series of scenes, director Zach Gayne shows how Linda’s eyes constantly roam toward Michelle in their various aerobics and yoga classes even before they officially meet. From these opening scenes, the characters’ official first interaction, and a scene where Linda convinces Michelle to come look at her home when she finds out she is an interior designer, HOMEWRECKER does an efficient job of setting up the differences between the two women — Michelle is in her mid to late ’20s and anxious about her marriage to a distant husband, Linda is in her early ’40s and is chipper about her decision to have given up on finding a true romantic partner—but also about getting Michelle into the home of the only semi-odd (at that time) Linda.
But even at that point in the movie, while it is mostly following the playbook of “weird, creepy stalker obsessed with a “normal” person squirm comedy,” HOMEWRECKER is surprisingly funny and believable. Gayne allows for moments like Michelle hiding out in the bathroom to make it clear that Michelle is not an idiot for putting up with Linda, she is just polite to the point here she puts herself in discomfort. I think more people can relate to that behavior than they would like to admit. At the same time, while Linda’s behavior has definitely crossed the line from quirky and overly cheerful to needy, the sketch of her life as a lonely person putting on a brave face is identifiable enough that she elicits the needed sympathy from Michelle (and the viewer) that it is not unreasonable that she would stay beyond the point where she has been pushed into more than awkward discomfort.
But if HOMEWRECKER had remained nothing but Linda making Michelle uncomfortable over a very long afternoon, it probably would have eventually fallen into the same traps of most squirm comedies. Thankfully, the script by Gayne, Essoe, and Chong has several tricks up its sleeve over the final two acts that push the film out of the squirm genre and into something more ambitious and darker than I initially expected.
Essoe and Chong play wonderfully off each other. Michelle is a brooding character when the film begins, but Essoe never allows her to come off as brittle or depressing. She has the less showy role of the two leads, but she gives Michelle a sly humor that slightly undercuts her discomfort in the early scenes and the film takes some turns to really let her unleash both some physical comedy, but also some righteous anger. Chong does a great job of modulating Linda’s obsessive friendliness with a prickly undertone. The script weaves in elements of generational conflict that Chong attacks with surprising bite and sarcasm, adding a little heft to the earlier scenes.
In many ways, HOMEWRECKER strikes me as an anti-squirm comedy, taking the tropes of what has quickly become an exhausted genre and turning them into an emotionally resonant satirical drama. It’s that rare film where the script, performances, and direction come together to stick the landing with a satisfying ending that leaves the audience with a knowing smirk because of where it has gone and where it is going to continue to go after the cut to the end credits.