Film International THE AUTOMATIC HATE review

Secrets Haunt Our Past: The Automatic Hate

By Elias Savada.

Listen, I have three vices. Movies. Craft beer. And genealogy.

Shortly after Justin Lerner’s second feature, The Automatic Hate, begins, there’s an uncomfortable meeting between socially awkward Alexis Green (Adelaide Clemens), an amateur stalker, and Davis Green (Joseph Cross), a bearded chef for a casually refined Italian café in Boston. According to her, they’re cousins, apparently of the first variety. Like the hundreds of people I’ve dropped the cousin line (always of a much more distant relation) on in the 30-plus years I’ve been collecting family members on my tree, the reaction by Davis (who knows his father is an only child) is not all that unusual in its WTF disdain.

“I don’t have any cousins.” Family isn’t all that important to some folks. That he has no cousins is a common misinterpretation of life. Go back more than one or two generations in your family, and you realize that everyone has cousins, but you just might not know (or care) who they are. The beguilingly pushy Alexis insists on a relationship. Boy, do they get one.

And so the mystery begins.

Lerner, the son of two developmental psychologists, uses some of his own family background in the script he co-wrote with Katharine O’Brien, also the film’s supervising art director. The legacy psych profile and some Ivy League connections are writ on Davis, who resides with his girlfriend Cassie (Trueblood‘s [2008-14] ginger-haired vampire Deborah Ann Woll), an emotionally temperamental ballerina. As for Alexis, she hails from fictional Dunstan, New York, a sleepy upstate New York town in the Finger Lakes region that probably is a stand in for Dryden, a stone’s throw from Cornell University, which happens to have been where Lerner graduated with a Theatre Arts degree. That was in 2002, exactly 30 years after I graduated that institution with the same degree. Most of the film was shot in Oneonta, Cooperstown, and on Aunt Karen’s Farm (no relation, I assume) in Mt. Vision, New York.

After snooping around his parents’ basement for evidence, he confronts his ailing grandfather Howard and the truth spills out. “We do not talk about Joshua,” he pushes out at the young man, realizing he has already said too much. Next up in the interrogation lineup is Dr. Ronald Green (West Wing‘s [1999-2006] Richard Schiff), Davis’s taciturn father and a New York City college professor teaching human development, asked if he pigeonholed family history information. The reply, “Leave it alone!” only eggs the son on further.

Let the sleuthing continue, upstate.

Alexis’s side of the family owns a thrift shop with a side business of medical marijuana. And Uncle Josh (Ricky Jay) and his wife Sarah (Catherine Carlen) are a handful of crazy, with a side of alternative lifestyle. According to the girls (Alexis has two sisters, played by sisters Yvonne and Vanessa Zima), talking about the family disconnect is verboten. And they giggle in a rather happy-uncomfortable way when Davis asks if they have boyfriends.

Maybe it’s too cheap a writer’s trick, but a big brotherly tic is that both men do the Times crossword puzzle in pen. It’s harder to erase the errors that way.

The discomfort level increases dramatically after Alexis and Davis watch a secret home movie, although they seem to be taking their cues from the title of a 1964 Elvis Presley musical comedy. The mixing bowl of feelings in Hate gets served well by the behind-the- camera talent, as Lerner has brought back many technicians from his audience-pleasing 2010 feature, Girlfriend, including cinematographer Quyen Tran (who makes every shot a sumptuous dish), editor Jeff Castelluccio, costume designer June Suepunpuck, and casting director Brad Gilmore. There’s also a common theme between both films involving a discomforting look at volatile relationships between unlikely companions.

The Automate Hate examines with brilliant resonance a decades-long unease within a family, the relationships that develop alongside the angst of two siblings, and the uncomfortable group gathering that brings it all tumbling out, save for an elephant or two hunkering about the room. You can sense the pachyderm stampede, but the screenplay still manages to toss another grenade into an already fascinating, character-driven story.

Clemens, best known for her Tawney Talbot character on SundanceTV’s Rectify (2013- ) and as the star of 2012’s Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, has an uncanny likeness, in an earthy way, to Michelle Williams and Allison Pill. Boy, does she nail her new role, giving a vibrant performance with a subtle, borderline-deranged vibe. Actor Cross subdues his character with a near fatal case of fear and desire that gnaws at the heart. Truth or dare might undo him in the end.

Lerner pushes the movie’s watch-your-back tension to near obscene yet still restrained levels. The film even gave me pause about my genealogical quests – an apprehension of finding dark issues in an ancestor’s past. The Automatic Hate is a powerful family tale with more than a few warts in hiding, whether in the damp woods of upstate New York or the dark alleys of Boston. It’s quite the family feud.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.

 

SXSW 2015 Shock Ya Interview: The Automatic Hate’s Justin Lerner, Katharine O’Brien and Joseph Cross

Testing the boundaries of your seemingly loving relationships with the most important people in your life, from your parents to your long-term significant other, can be a revealing insight into how strongly you trust them and believe in their commitment to protecting your well-being. That enticing process of engaging in seemingly dangerous situations is captivatingly showcased in director Justin Lerner’s second feature film directorial effort, ‘The Automatic Hate,’ the follow-up to his debut movie, the 2010 drama, ‘Girlfriend.’ The helmer, who co-wrote the script to his latest film with Katharine O’Brien, grippingly cast actor Joseph Cross to portray a seemingly successful young man who willingly put his connections with his parents and girlfriend at risk. In his erratic decision to prove he has the right to know all the secrets that have purposefully been kept hidden from him, he not only brought up old tensions that strained the relationships in his entire family, but also threatened the love he was so determined to maintain with his girlfriend.

‘The Automatic Hate’ follows Davis Green (Cross), a chef working in a Boston restaurant who’s determined to rebuild his relationship with his girlfriend of two years, Cassie (Deborah Ann Woll), after she had an abortion. After seeing a mysterious young woman wave to him and one of his friends while they were at the restaurant under the apartment he shares with Cassie, Davis approaches her, but she quickly runs away. Later that night, he sees her again through one of the windows of his apartment, and decides to try to speak with her once more. This time the woman, Alexis (Adelaide Clemens), claims they’re first cousins, as their fathers are brothers. After learning of his existence, she tracked him down, despite not telling her parents of her intentions to meet him.

At first, Davis denies Alexis’ claims, as he insistently tells her that his father’s an only child. But her assertion leads him to begin to ponder the past of his father, Ronald (Richard Schiff), who’s a professor and psychiatrist who specializes in such areas as nature vs. nurture and family relationships. After discovering that his father has kept the fact that he really does have a brother, Josh (Ricky Jay), who he has kept hidden for thirty years, Davis decides to go against Ronald’s wishes. He travels to rural Upstate New York to meet his uncle and two other cousins, Annie (Yvonne Zima) and Amanda (Vanessa Zima), on the pig farm they live on and operate.

After Davis quickly develops a strong connection with his long-lost relatives, he sets out with Alexis to reunite their broken family. But in getting to know each other, Davis and Alexis realize they are perhaps more like their own fathers than they thought. As the pair uncovers the incident that tore their family apart, the two cousins must resist the temptation to keep their fathers’ deep-rooted grudge going, rather than end it.

While in Austin, Texas this week for ‘The Automatic Hate’s World Premiere during SXSW’s Narrative Spotlight Section, Lerner, O’Brien and Cross generously took the time to talk about making the independent drama during an exclusive phone interview. The filmmakers and actor discussed collaborating on the script together to bring the characters to life; the complexity, confusion and struggle Davis contended with after the revelation of the family his father and uncle kept hidden from him and his cousins, and how the brothers’ heartbreaking secret dramatically changed everyone’s lives; and how Lerner was drawn to cast Cross, Clemens and the supporting actors in their respective roles after he met with them and discussed their characters.

ShockYa (SY): Justin and Katharine, you co-wrote the script for ‘The Automatic Hate’ together. How did you develop your writing partnership, and what was the process of collaborating together on the script once you began writing?

Katharine O’Brien (KO’B): Well, Justin and I started talking about scripts, and we realized we had a lot in common when it comes to our tastes in films. The great thing about working with someone is that you can move a lot faster. We got the ideas about this family down really fast.

SY: Justin, besides co-writing the script with Katharine, you also directed the drama. How did working on the screenplay influence your directorial approach once you began filming?

Justin Lerner (JL): Well, I’ve only directed scripts I have written. That process not only helps you find the right actors for each role, but also easily lets you make any last-minute changes on the set. But I also let the words in the script inform the actors, which helps them bring their characters to life. Having the freedom to work with the actors on the script also allows me to start editing the film while we’re still on the set.

SY: Joseph, you play Davis Green, the main character in ‘The Automatic Hate,’ who becomes interested in getting to know his extended family he never knew about after unexpectedly meeting his cousin, Alexis. What was it about the character of Davis, as well as Justin and Katharine’s script, that convinced you to take on the role?

Joseph Cross (JC): I loved the script, and thought it featured a rich approach to the world Justin and Katharine had created. I also thought Davis had a lot of depth and complexity, as well as confusion and struggle within himself. I was also excited about the idea of working with Adelaide.

SY: Justin, what was the overall casting process like for the film-how did you find the rest of the actors for the supporting cast?

JL: Joe came in and read, as I was out scouting the country for a barn to shoot on. Then we had a meeting, during which I realized he was the guy for the job, as did everyone else on the team.

The same thing happened with Adelaide, who we found through tape. Alix Madigan, who produced this film, as well as ‘Winter’s Bone,’ told us how she found Jennifer Lawrence through tape, when another actress didn’t work out for that movie. As soon as everyone saw Adelaide’s tape, not only did she get cast, but we also were able to raise more money.

Alix had a relationship with Deborah Ann Woll, so we cast her based on that connection, as well as all of us knowing her work. So we wanted to work with her, and ended us casting her after a couple of meetings.

I wrote a letter to Ricky Jay after we tracked down his manager for about a month. In the letter, I told him how big of a fan I am of his work, and how I always had him in mind for the role. I also told him how we’re similiar. I mentioned how my father’s from Brooklyn, that I’m Jewish and I went to Cornell. Ricky’s a Jewish guy from Brooklyn who also went to Cornell.

I offered him the role of the hippie pig farmer, a character he hasn’t been offered or played before, as he usually plays gangsters and magicians. So I think he was intrigued, and I gave him a hard sell at our meeting. We also offered Richard Schiff the role of Ricky’s younger brother, and he really responded to the material.

Two real-life sisters, Yvonne and Vanessa Zima, played the sisters of Adelaide’s character. I had met with Yvonne, and knew Vanessa socially, and was very taken with them in our meeting. So I thought they would be great older sisters for Adelaide, not just because of the physical likenesses; I was also drawn to their rambunctious and carefree attitudes, which the characters needed. Putting together a family for a film is always hard when you’re casting, but we lucked out with this one. 

Written by: Karen Benardello