I met Kyle Patrick Alvarez, whose first feature film Easier with Practice was shown at the Roxie last Saturday night as part of SF IndieFest, out on the sidewalk before the film. As a friend of a friend, Alvarez clued us in on a little piece of trivia: Easier with Practice is only the second film to ever receive an NC-17 rating without having any nudity in it. The other being the original mumblecore: Clerks. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Bay Area Kevin Smith was getting kicked off a Southwest Flight for being too fat. (Joke’s on you, Silent Bob – you’re a Hollywood director who still flies Southwest.)

The film’s premise, then: Davy Mitchell has just published a book of short stories to some humble amount of success and is currently on a book tour of the Southwest where he reads to audiences of folding chairs, cluttered shelves, and gentle applause. His brother Sean is there to help with the driving and maybe pickup some book club groupies along the way. Because the book tour’s budget is nonexistent the pair stay in shitty hotels motels, Davy corrects his brother.

When Sean goes out for a smoke, the motel room phone rings. Davy picks up a call that sounds like phone sex, and indeed results in exactly that, but the voice on the other end never asks for money. Instead, the caller: “Nicole” starts calling Davy on his original Nokia cellphone daily from a protected number and an odd relationship blossoms.

Now, at first, this premise sounds like something we’ve seen before. Punchdrunk Love had a similar setup: a lonely and frustrated man, loosely based on a real person, is being taken advantage of by a voice on the phone who offers relief. In that film though, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) was struggling to balance out his pent-up rage with even a tiny amount of happiness, whereas in Easier with Practice, Davy doesn’t seem so out of balance, just emotionally delicate and painfully aware of it.

Of course, we don’t need to see any other film to understand that taking unsolicited phone sex calls from someone you’ve never met is a bad idea, but Davy is a little pathetic and the feeling of sympathy he elicits from us is a little awkward. What I mean is I’ve never rooted for someone to consummate a relationship with a sultry phone voice before, and so it feels odd to even imply approval of such a relationship. We do learn that Davy has had some sexual encounters in person before, but when attempts are made at a dinner party to reconcile with an awkward one-night stand, Davy balks only to return home and lay in bed with the phone on the pillow, hoping for a call from Nicole.

The film is split in to two parts: The first half feels like a road film and the nearly-blank backdrop of New Mexico (the film was mostly shot in Albuquerque) and its interchangeable motel rooms allows us to focus on Davy and his relationships with Sean and Nicole. The establishing shots capture perfectly bland signage such as “Motel Lobby” or “U-Pump-It” which give us a minimal amount of context, while the brothers’ aging station wagon and Davy’s prehistoric cellphone remove any historical setting.

The second half of the film, however, is much slower and more intimate. The pacing may feel like a drag, but we grow increasingly interested in whether or not Davy will ever get to meet Nicole in person. At the film’s climax, we can see where the film departs from its source material, a true story by Davy Rothbart, but that’s as much as I’ll say without giving anything away. There will be some confused feelings as you leave the theater, but if nothing else you’ll leave with the same feeling of confusion that Davy deals with constantly. Trying to make sense of the absurd is never fruitful, but the process itself can be cathartic.

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