Marriage is hard work, and for anyone in the trenches, this year's Sundance was a rough ride.

"The Freebie" is ostensibly a comedy, but it's a comedy that plays rough.  Katie Aselton, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film, offers up a a tough look at the way couples can find themselves stalled out in their emotional connection, and what they'll do to try to reforge those connections.  In this case, Darren (Dax Shepard) and Annie (Aselton) have been married for several years, and they have a relationship that looks perfect from the outside.  They spend all their free time together, they laugh, they share crosswords in bed, and they seem genuinely happy.  But their sex life has grown stagnant, to the point that they can't remember the last time they were together, and as they confront that idea, they try to figure out the best way to kickstart things.

What begins as a theoretical conversation quickly becomes an agreement:  for one night, they'll call a time out, and each of them is allowed to pick one person to have sex with.  No questions asked.  No strings attached.  No recriminations.  Their thinking is that the vacation from fidelity will rekindle the passion between the two of them, and after setting some ground rules, they kick things off.  The film then jumps in time to after the night off, and leaves the question hanging:  who did what, and how is it going to affect them in the long run? 

The way the film is structured is one of the smartest things about it, because this isn't a movie about giant fireworks or big payoffs.  It's about the tiny things that can eat away at a marriage like a cancer.  It's about the way doubt can poison people.  It's about just how hard it is to keep passion alive, and that's something that every couple has to face at some point.  Love and lust are totally different things, but in our culture, we tend to confuse them or, worse, equate them, and it can lead to hurt feelings, disappointment, disconnection, or even the disintegration of a marriage.  Aselton, who is married to Mark Duplass (writer/director of "Cyrus" with his brother Jay, and the star of last year's "Humpday"), displays a real sensitivity here as a filmmaker, and it's amazing this is her first film.  There's a real confidence to it, and considering it was largely improvised and shot in just a few weeks, it's a surprise on all fronts.

Until now, Dax Shepard has been a guy with good timing and little else.  I first noticed him on early seasons of "Punk'd," where his improv skills were evident as he had to sell the most insane realities to people without ever giving away the game, rolling with whatever happened.  So far, most of his film work has consisted of "Employee Of The Month" and "Without A Paddle," but there have been a few bright spots like "Idiocracy" that suggested there was more to him than we'd seen so far.  "The Freebie" finally proves the point, and he reveals that there's real depth behind that timing.  His chemistry with Aselton onscreen is affectionate and sweet, and when the shit finally hits the fan, he demonstrates a real facitily with pain.  Aselton is equally impressive, adorable and real and raw at times.  The movie pretty much hinges on how much you do or don't care about the two of them, and by the time the two of them hit their lowest point, I was completely invested in the outcome.

"The Freebie" may not ever challenge "Avatar" for the all-time box-office record, but it marks the debut of a real voice, and I sincerely hope this is only the first of many films that Katie Aselton creates.

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