How to Cheat: Film Review

Shoestring drama about a stillborn marriage looks like Mumblecore but has a more meaningful agenda

In writer/director Amber Sealey's How to Cheat, Kent Osborne plays an L.A. man in a loveless marriage who decides to cheat rather than divorce.

MONTREAL — Sitting a couple of tiers above its Mumblecore cousins in terms of emotional stakes and dramatic accomplishment, writer/director Amber Sealey's How to Cheat comes from a corner of the microbudget world that doesn't equate conventional dramatic conflict with inauthenticity. Good word-of-mouth and some deserved acting awards from the Los Angeles Film Fest should help it fare better in the commercial arena than most of its peers.

Those peers mightn't come to mind if not for surface similarities: The presence of Joe Swanberg pal Kent Osborne in the leading role; the use of L.A. locations one guesses are also the filmmakers' homes; and the apparent belief that any film could use a couple of scenes of male nudity and masturbation.

Here, that final ingredient kicks the film off: We see Osborne disrobing and loping into a hillside back yard, his naked body flab-flopping around in a ritual we'll eventually come to interpret as a desperate man's attempt to force the world to make something happen in his life.

Osborne's Mark is suffering through a marriage in which an on-the-way-out "love you, bye" is as passionate as things get and sex is a chore necessitated by an unexamined need to have kids. (A dinner party with another couple, who tactlessly interrogate them about "trying to get pregnant," is among the film's most convincing real-life horrors.)

Mark's wife Beth is played by Sealey, and while it's curious that the filmmaker would deliberately sideline herself -- couldn't the indie world use more stories told from a woman's perspective? -- the setup does examine Beth's part in things in an oblique way. Hopeless in the face of her callous treatment of him, Mark eventually confesses to his makeshift shrink that he intends to have an affair because "I'd love to feel regret. I don't feel anything." By the way, these "sessions" are with his mother, who's played by Osborne's own mother -- a funny element that rings true in a sweetly pathetic way.

The ensuing montage of funny gone-awry encounters leads Mark to Louise, a damaged young woman who gets plenty of sympathy from the filmmaker. As played by Amanda Street, she's simultaneously dangerous and sad, an alcoholic with her own reasons for working hard at making life worse for herself.

The two do sleep together, prompting plot twists both expected and not. Throughout the aftermath of the betrayal, Sealey's direction and dialogue aim for the believable strangeness of real human relationships instead of the schematics of melodrama. With the exception of a brief moment or two, the film definitely hits the mark.

Venue: Montreal World Film Festival, Focus on World Cinema

Production Company: Part Participation Films

Cast: Amber Sealey, Kent Osborne, Amanda Street, V. Kim Blish, Dan Ewen, Paulette Osborne

Director-screenwriter: Amber Sealey

Producer: Ben Thoma

Executive producers: Maria Jose Fajardo, Carolina Portago

Director of photography: Gabriel Diamond

Music: Ted Speaker

Editor: Michelle Witten

No rating, 87 minutes