Review: 'Newlyweeds' is a stoner's riff on the romantic comedy, but how potent is it?
PARK CITY - So far, Sundance has managed to get me ruminating on my own personal career of chemical misadventures, purely by coincidence. Last night's film, "Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus and 2012," had me thinking about what it is that draws us to the extreme experiences, the personal tests that we sometimes impose on ourselves out of a drive to see if we are strong enough to handle them, and this morning's movie, "Newlyweeds," left me reflecting on the way certain relationships in my own life were defined by what substance I had in common with someone.
Shaka King's debut feature, "Newlyweeds" examines the dynamic between Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), a young couple who have a mutual love of smoking marijuana. Lyle works as a repo man for a rent-to-own company, and Nina gives museum tours, and the two of them are full of dreams and seem perfectly matched as the film begins. There are many things to like about the way the film unfolds, and for about an hour of the running time, it seems like it works well. Cheatom and Harris do a nice job of playing the couple, and Tone Trank also displays real charisma as Jackie, who is Lyle's partner at work. For a while, there's an aimless quality to the film that works in its favor. We see how Lyle and Jackie have to find ways to get into the apartments where they're supposed to repossess things, and we see how the weed manages to both bring Lyle and Nina closer together at times while also introducing real problems into their relationship. It's great to have someone to smoke with at the end of a day when you're relaxing, someone who is on the same wavelength as you are, but when that person ends up smoking an entire eighth while you're at work and they're unwilling or unable to replace it, the strain it causes is very particular and not really like a normal relationship issue.
My problems with the film kick in fairly late as King introduces what feels like some artificial drama to keep the two of them apart. It makes me uncomfortable because it feels like we're at a cultural turning point right as we see states legalizing marijuana and not just for medical use, and it feels like it's time to start telling honest stories that don't depend on moralization to drive the story forward. I was confused because at the start of the film, it seemed very bracing and honest, but the last third of the movie seems to start to punish the characters for their lifestyle choices, something that feels motivated by the needs of the filmmaker, not the needs of the audience or the needs of the characters. The moment the film starts getting serious about plot, it starts to fall apart, and by the time the end rolls around, it feels like the material has gotten away from King altogether. There's one incident involving Nina, some pot brownies, and a group of kids visiting the museum that tries to play the comedy in the moment, but it's such a big transgressions that the laughs don't land and the drama feels false.
I do think there are performances and moments and ideas in "Newlyweeds" that suggest that King could be a very good filmmaker, but this is still a rough-hewn example of his voice with some first-time filmmaker mistakes. He hasn't quite gotten a handle on tone, and so he tries several differing things in a way that never completely coheres. Daniel Patterson's photography is rich and vivid, and I liked Scot Thorough's score quite a bit. Overall, "Newlyweeds" is too soft for me to fully recommend it, but I guarantee I'll be waiting for King's second feature and hoping that he pulls things together on that one.