'Sell By': Film Review | Outfest 2019
Mike Doyle's ensemble film featuring Patricia Clarkson and Kate Walsh revolves around the slumping five-year relationship between a frustrated painter and a successful fashion influencer.
In the New York City-set romantic comedy Sell By, Adam (Scott Evans), a frustrated painter, and Marklin (Augustus Prew), a successful fashion influencer, find themselves in a slump in their five-year relationship. Adam makes a living by secretly painting all the work for a wealthy, pretentious artist named Ravella (Patricia Clarkson) while wishing he was further along with the paintings that actually mean something to him. Marklin has gone from working retail to running a high-end men’s fashion website with a huge Instagram following. Adam’s best friend Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) has been married for over a decade and wants Adam to get married, too. Meanwhile, Marklin’s best friends Cammy (Michelle Buteau) and Haley (Zoe Chao) — in the meatiest film appearances to date for both newcomers — struggle to overcome dating the wrong guys.
It’s rare to see an ensemble film where the cast feels like it has no weak links, but Doyle has assembled a group of fine actors with buoyant onscreen chemistry across the board, and this grounds the movie from the start. Much like Adam painting gentle brushstrokes day after day in his studio, the pic makes a point of quietly, steadily revealing itself to us. Doyle folds in flashbacks and dream sequences artfully and offers up a script in which the dialogue feels natural and the story swings seamlessly between beats of joy and sadness.
With its dreamlike blues and grays, Sell By looks more pensive than gloomy. Doyle and his cinematographer Ludovic Littee hide parts of the frame from the audience. For example, during an emotional scene when Marklin surprises Adam by taking him to the park where they first met, we only get to see the sides of their faces and the backs of their heads as they have a tough conversation. In this particular scene, it feels off not to get a frontal read of the characters’ emotions.
Where the film is more successful in executing this idea is in shooting Adam’s artwork. The first time we see his own paintings — not the ones he paints for his boss — we are only shown the top half of the canvas. This visual choice matches Adam’s own confusion about revealing his art to the world, and revealing himself fully to his partner. By the end of the pic when Adam unveils a full painting to us, and his full self to Marklin, we realize just how touched we are by this couple and how much we want them to make it.
Sell By is a movie focused on a gay couple; it isn’t about their gayness. At its core, this is a film about emotional intimacy: the mundane, ecstatic and difficult parts of loving someone over the long-term. It feels like next-gen queer cinema in that it depicts the lives of gay characters but insists on prioritizing their inner struggles, the way any other indie pic about a couple would, instead of limiting their lives to only being about coming out or fighting for LGBTQ rights. Notably, there are no sex scenes between the two leads that in another movie might be used to show how non-threatening and normal gay sex is for a straight audience. Yet there’s no sense of sexual repression or an absence of affection between Adam and Marklin. It’s a confident choice Doyle is making here, and a smart one, allowing the film to delve into a wider exploration of what binds a couple together and what can tear them apart.
Doyle doesn’t ignore the struggles that gay people face in society, however. He slips in one bittersweet scene in which Adam and Marklin kiss on the street during a bike ride home from couples therapy, and a man angrily yells “fags” at them. They brush it off playfully and keep riding.
Though it’s a movie about Adam and Marklin, a bit more development of the female characters in their friend group could have enriched the story. We know that Buteau’s character Cammy "used to edit cookbooks," that Walsh’s Elizabeth hates kids and that Chao’s Haley is a writer who went to Brown, but beyond this their stories are only told within the context of their romantic pairings. And despite the actresses' strong performances, you wish you knew their characters better by the end of the film.
Nevertheless, Sell By is an impressive directorial debut from a veteran actor with a refreshingly bespoke point of view. It’s proof that a quiet movie with a relatable story rarely portrayed onscreen doesn’t need forced hijinks to impact an audience; sometimes the most touching paintings are the simplest ones.
Production company: Sell By Film
Cast: Scott Evans, Augustus Prew, Michelle Buteau, Zoe Chao, Kate Walsh, Patricia Clarkson, Colin Donnell, Chaz Lamar Sheperd, Brian Marc, John Doman
Director-screenwriter: Mike Doyle
Producers: Mandy Ward, Ellyn Vander Wyden, Kaolin Bass
Director of photography: Ludovic Littee
Editor: Michael Berenbaum
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles