I met director Justin Lerner in Austin at a hole-in-the-wall bar during the SXSW Film Festival, where he pitched his effectively eerie family drama "The Automatic Hate" as a combo of Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" and Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye." A shrieking Dogme95 incest drama meets a Raymond Chandler potboiler? I was intrigued.
Writer/director Lerner and co-writer Katharine O'Brien set up a bait-and- switch mystery that then pulls us into the world of an unstable and broken family as their buried grudges of the past come into shattering present-day focus. "Automatic Hate" begins as an alluring young blonde (Adelaide Clemens) drops on the doorstep of Davis (Joseph Cross) and tells him she's his cousin. He does not know the girl, who says her name is Alexis. His curiosity titillated, Davis follows her out of his boring city life and into the Upstate New York backwoods — at the umbrage of his psychologist father (Richard Schiff), who's been stashing secrets for years — where meets a whole clan of such Hitchcock-blond farm girls. Davis and Alexis begin dangerously
courting the taboo that needs no name, and it all culminates in one of the most explosive and uncomfortable dinner scenes you'll ever see.
"A lot of audiences are very passive when they get to identify with a character who is good, and you become detached," said Lerner at SXSW. "I'm trying to allow you to identify with a character and then have them do something fucked up."
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Lerner's parents were developmental psychologists who gave him a Quaker upbringing in Pennsylvania before shuttling to conventional society. "They're very nice, you call everyone by their first name," Lerner said of the Society of Friends that raised him. "Everyone is so nice and so good, when I went into public school everyone was really mean. I didn't know mean people existed. I became acutely aware that evil exists and became obsessed with it all the way through high school, where I got my ass kicked because I was trained emotionally, from an early age, to be sweet to people, and give the benefit of the doubt. I became more profoundly aware of morality."
It's hard to talk about themes and plot without taking the piss out of the whole thing. But the central question of the movie, O'Brien said, is "nature vs. nurture. All the characters learn their central natures are aligned with what their parents were like."
Lerner began directing shorts in 2004 before his patently non-mainstream "Girlfriend," about a kid with Down syndrome pursuing an attractive single mom, premiered in Toronto 2010. He met "Automatic Hate" co-writer O'Brien while they were working in acquisitions at The Weinstein Company. She was shipping off to Columbia grad school, and Lerner was working on his MFA at UCLA, where he wrote his thesis on Andrei Tarkovsky. He's a professed auteurist who loves the patient long takes of Antonioni, Haneke and Reygadas and the "tragic, seductive humor of Mike Nichols."
"All have these taboo desires. Some are better than others at tampering them. The movie says that we all have them," Lerner said. "Whether you act on them or not is the product of where you live. Are you born in the woods, or in a city, a civilized society with walls? How much does that affect how you pursue every whimsical desire you have in your life? We're all born with primal instincts but living in a certain place conditions you to know what you can and cannot go for."
Lerner said that SXSW film head Janet Pierson was an early champion of "The Automatic Hate" and that, after taking his feature debut to Toronto, it's refreshing to attend a festival like South By, where a little American indie is front-and-center. The film plays Seattle on May 24, and is currently seeking US distribution. But as a sort of "Romeo and Juliet" incest tale of two cousins who face their mutual attraction, this one has headline-making potential.