‘Stuff’: Outfest Review
A married-with-kids lesbian couple faces a potentially unbridgeable rift
Entering the well-trod territory of suburban marital ennui for her dramatic feature Stuff, writer-director Suzanne Guacci doesn’t find much that’s new or compelling. Her exploration of the growing divide between a lesbian couple hits obvious emotional points, spelling each one out with little nuance. There are, however, some well-performed moments by a solid cast. Beyond LGBT-themed festivals, small-screen and VOD platforms would be the best fit for the Outfest selection.
In the opening scenes, the director and her cinematographer, Jessica Bennett, capture the setting’s small-town vibe, both idyllic and limiting (the film was shot on Long Island). But most of the action unfolds in the character-defining interiors by production designer Rachel Lowery, which signal stasis — in contrast with the sense of possibility and motion in well-chosen tracks by Brazilian percussionist Dudu Tucci.
Dentist Trish (Karen Sillas) and stay-at-home mom Deb (Yvonne Jung), married 14 years and raising two daughters, are at an impasse and barely communicating. They’ve succumbed to the age-old disconnect between the breadwinner who’s rarely home and the caretaker who’s stuck there. Beyond this, Trish is investing all her emotional energy in a contentious relationship with her 80-year-old mother, Ginger, played with bracing iciness by Phyllis Somerville.
Five years after her father’s death, Trish can’t get Ginger to agree on a headstone for his grave or sort through his belongings, which clutter every room of Ginger’s house — pointed reminders of one meaning of the film’s title (another is revealed in the final image). As the screenplay makes unambiguously clear, Trish’s preoccupation with her mother’s need to move on is her way of not moving forward herself; it gives her something to focus on rather than her marriage and Deb’s growing resentment.
While Trish spends hours at the cemetery, arranging flowers as a substitute gravestone, Deb is drawn into a substitute relationship, an increasingly intimate friendship with new mom in town Jamie (Traci Dinwiddie). An unmarried tattoo artist who’s in recovery from unnamed addictions, Jamie is a jolt of nonconformity in a land of soccer moms. Dinwiddie suggests stirring complexities beneath Jamie’s self-possession and purposefulness. It’s too bad that the character’s bad-news ex (Joseph A. Halsey) arrives as a cartoonish plot twist. Here as elsewhere, Guacci knows how to explain intense emotion but not how to make it felt; nearly every conversation, argument and even silence hits the narrative nail squarely on the head.
There is something fresh, though, in a story thread involving Deb and Trish’s older daughter, Suzie (played with self-confidence by Maya Guacci, daughter of the director). Suzie, who’s about 10, has made up her mind that she wants to be the narrator in the school play, and no other part will do. The urgency with which Deb advises her to give herself a fallback plan — in other words, to prepare to settle — is one of the more telling and poignant observations in Guacci’s script.
The 2013 feature Concussion took a similar milieu and setup, involving a bored and neglected lesbian wife, and ran with it in extreme and sometimes mysterious directions. With her look beneath the façade of suburbia, Guacci is aiming for something more conventional and reassuring. After belaboring most of its points, the movie rushes toward an ending that feels expedient rather than persuasive. Had she explained less and given her characters room to breathe, she might have told a more involving story.
Production companies: Aspire Prods. in association with Really Good Stuff
Cast: Yvonne Jung, Karen Sillas, Traci Dinwiddie, Phyllis Somerville, Kevin Brown, Joseph A. Halsey, Maya Guacci, Brianna Scudiero
Director: Suzanne Guacci
Screenwriter: Suzanne Guacci
Producers: Theresa Aquilina, Suzanne Guacci, Debra Markowitz
Director of photography: Jessica Bennett
Production designer: Rachel Lowery
Costume designer: Alexandra Ford
Editor: Mike Mazzotta
Casting director: Debra Markowitz
No rating, 97 minutes