Working on my fourth year in a long relationship, I start to appreciate what it takes to stay together. Enduring couples have to spar as often as they snuggle. After a while, long-lasting couples develop a certain smugness, a certain belief that they are far superior to others, that they can handle anything. This is tempting fate — daring Dorothy that no pussy tornado can touch you — and so there’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching one of these smug bastard couples get their comeuppance. It’s like praying that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s baby in Away We Go becomes a Young Republican.
The Freebie seems like a bad idea from the start — two young hipster marrieds, together some seven plus years, decide that it’s only logical that a couple as enlightened as they can go out and have one night stands and be none the worse for wear. Yet, writer/director/star Katie Aselton succeeds because she hates these stupid bastards just as much as we do. The Freebie is honest and smart and ugly, riding on the outstanding chemistry between Aselton and her co-star Dax Shepard, whose performance might have very well been the degree of difficulty that propelled this into the gold medal category.The Freebie rings painfully true, but eschews any of the slapstick or staged fights that would cripple this as a studio film. What makes the flick so endearing is that, as in real life, Aselton avoids going for the simple solutions. It’s a textbook example of what every indie romance should be — ugly, beautiful, and sincere.
The Freebie starts like all the best colossal fuck-ups — an innocent conversation about sex. But they’re never innocent, are they? The second the words pass your lips, it becomes a live ball in play — like a game of street hockey played with an active landmine. The couple start trying to figure out if their soup is still spicy, so to speak — the dreaded “Have We Gone Stale?” Darren (Dax Shepard) tap dances worthy of Fosse, trying to sugar coat truth in that bullshitty way we men have. Of course he thinks about other women, of course he feels some regret that this is the last vagina he will be seeing, of course he harbors secret wishes to go get some strange. Because guess what? She’s got those same damn feelings. So Annie (Katie Aselton) proposes that they give each other one free pass. No questions, no talking about it, they just both take the same night and go out and get laid, come home, and that will fix everything. Because if they’re honest and open with each other, and because they’re mature enough to understand each other, and because they’re love is obviously bigger than mere harmless dalliances, they can handle this. Right?
Oh, does it just blow the fuck up in their faces. It unfolds like a septic tanker speeding downhill towards a yellow intersection. Someone’s gonna eat shit. You can’t be honest about being unfaithful; it’s impossible. Infidelity tears relationships apart with the ferocity of a cougar. Feelings will be hurt. Aselton has enough confidence in her film to let us watch the couple collide in slow motion and then keeps filming as everyone climbs out to survey the damage — both external and internal. Particularly impressive is the set-up: the who, the what, the where. It’s not expressly clear whether or not the two actually go through with the intended sex, so any fights become all the more nuanced. All the jealous and bitterness can all be predicated on lies. It’s like two little kids daring each other to kiss a dog turd. Most of the outrage comes not out of chickening out, but that you would be disgusting enough to do that in the first place.
Aselton claims that there was no script, that it was improvised based on a six-page outline. As a screenwriter, I can’t say fuck you loud enough; as a film enthusiast, I say bra-fucking-vo. And so the relationship between Aselton and Shepard feels authentic and organic. Both of the leads bring realism and honesty to their respective roles. Aselton I can expect this from, but I didn’t think Dax had the chops. He was outstanding in Idiocracy, but he was playing an idiot. It’s the best kind of dramatic performance, coming from a place of comedy. Their entire relationship is based on “Wouldn’t it be funny if?” and then suddenly it isn’t.
The Freebie is the best kind of indie romance — one that makes you ponder. It’s almost a horror film in the vein of Reefer Madness. Harmless? Hardly. Aselton is on the audience’s side, showing just how incredibly stupid you have to be to think you can cheat fairly. Instead of relying on big shiny argument montages, tearful tissue shaking fists, and people sitting by lakes throwing rocks while alt rock plays in the background, Aselton tells it like it is. There’s still mooning, and crying, and shouting. But it’s done with such a deft hand, you can hardly believe this is her first feature. She’s got a promising filmmaking career if she can continue to keep it real.