The sins of the fathers are visited upon the Millennial offspring in The Automatic Hate, a drama that spins around a family mystery. As in his debut feature, Girlfriend, which centered on a young man with Down syndrome, director Justin Lerner aims to provoke by posing questions about taboo sexual entanglements. He creates a few discomfiting moments as two long-lost cousins face their mutual attraction. But what begins intriguingly rests increasingly on manufactured suspense, with Adelaide Clemens’ performance the most compelling element of the film. Having bowed at SXSW, the indie might seduce a distributor with its combo of twentysomething p.o.v. and shock factor, however heavily telegraphed.
Clemens plays Alexis Green, who arrives with ditzy urgency at the apartment of Boston chef Davis Green (Joseph Cross). Tellingly, she asks for a hug before revealing her purpose: She claims to be the daughter of his paternal uncle, information that he dismisses because his father is an only child. But his curiosity is roused. And given the recent strain in his relationship with his girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll, of True Blood, successfully avoiding girlfriend clichés), he welcomes the distraction.
Armed with an all-too-easily uncovered clue from his childhood home, Davis forces his condescending psychology professor father (well played by Richard Schiff) to admit to the existence of a disowned sibling, though Dad won’t explain what led to the rift. Over his father’s dire warnings, Davis heads to the pig and pot farm in upstate New York where Alexis lives with her equally wild but less thin-skinned sisters (Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima), her clothing-optional mother (Catherine Carlen) and her convention-scorning father (Ricky Jay), whose every blunt pronouncement has an ominous undertow, and who has no interest in addressing an “unresolvable” dispute.
As Davis and Alexis try to unravel the dark secret that tore their fathers apart 30 years earlier, and the movie draws closer to its impending big reveal, she lays some farm-girl honesty on him, speaking the unspeakable about the spark between them, and essentially daring the city-bred careerist to follow his feelings instead of the rules.
The central duo are both weak, but in different ways. Though determined to solve the deepening riddle, Davis can be shy and tentative; Cross finds a touch of danger in the role, but the character remains too soft to be convincing as a big-city chef. In the showier part, Clemens (Rectify) taps straight into Alexis’ unfiltered openness, which shifts from sweet to disturbingly needy to predatory, raising the question of whether she’s out to unite two families or destroy them.
The screenplay, by Lerner and Katharine O’Brien, lays out its premise in an early scene, when Davis’ father introduces the nature-vs.-nurture dilemma in a lecture hall. In both the backstory and the more immediate setting, the screenwriters cover their psychological bases, constructing relationships and frictions that make sense. Davis is susceptible to his cousin’s overtures because of his girlfriend’s remoteness; the movie opens, compellingly, with her literally shutting him out, leaving him on the other side of their locked bedroom door as she weeps. Her reasons, when revealed, are the stuff of complex drama.
But the larger story proceeds far less credibly and all too neatly, with frozen-in-time evidence just waiting for discovery by the sleuthing cousins. Supporting characters are barely developed, with Lerner and O’Brien showing next to no interest in the feuding brothers’ wives (Carlen and Caitlin O’Connell), whose perspectives on the family Green might have enriched the film.
Lerner alternates between well-observed character detail and clunky mystery-solving developments. However uneven the action, Hunter Brown’s understated score is a judicious complement. Cinematographer Quyen Tran gets the dirt and sun of the rural setting, and her use of slo-mo in a climactic dinner scene is unexpectedly effective, showcasing the culinary bounty just before the storm.
Cast: Joseph Cross, Adelaide Clemens, Richard Schiff, Ricky Jay, Deborah Ann Woll, Yvonne Zima, Vanessa Zima, Catherine Carlen, Caitlin O’Connell
Director: Justin Lerner
Screenwriters: Justin Lerner, Katharine O’Brien
Producers: Lacey Leavitt, Justin Lerner, Alix Madigan-Yorkin
Executive producers: Lucas Akoskin, Alex Garcia, Gabriela Revilla Lugo, Kerianne Flynn, Daniel Alexander, John Alexander
Director of photography: Quyen Tran
Production designer: Alexandra Regazzoni
Costume designer: June Suepunpuck
Editor: Jeffrey J. Castelluccio
Composer: Hunter Brown
Casting director: Brad Gilmore
No rating, 97 minutes