"Write what you know", goes the old saying. Unfortunately, all too many aspiring writers tend to know the exact same white male upbringing in the upper-middle class suburbs, so the stories they tell sound awfully familiar after a while. I can at least say that writer/director Justin Lerner tries to come up with something outré in his second feature, The Automatic Hate, but unfortunately he does so in pretty much the most predictable way possible. Worse, if the choice of material doesn't manage to shock you, it's entirely likely that you'll notice how unbalanced and sketchy the writing is.
And it seems possible that Lerner is, in fact, writing what he knows, at least in some sort of ham-fisted allegory (see also: After Earth). Davis Green (Joseph Cross) is a moderately successful chef in Boston, though he studied developmental psychology like his father (Richard Schiff) -- and both Lerner's parents -- teaches. There are lines suggesting that Ronald Green is disappointed in his son's choice of vocation, but they never seem to tie into any other action or theme in the movie. Is it just lazy, boilerplate daddy-issues characterization? is Lerner working out some of his own actual grievances on screen? I have no idea, but it certainly seems suggestive.
Whether or not that's drawn from real life, I hope what comes next isn't. A young woman named Alexis (Adelaide Clemens) shows up and claims to be Davis' cousin; Ronald's niece by a brother, Josh (Ricky Jay), that Davis never knew about. He doesn't believe her at first, but then it seems she might be telling the truth. And since he's having trouble with his ballerina girlfriend (Deborah Ann Woll) -- she had an abortion; another hackneyed trope that comes from and goes nowhere else in the script -- Davis decides to bug right out and find Alexis, Josh, and that whole branch of the family somewhere in rural upstate New York.
It's there that Davis and Alexis develop Feelings for each other. And yes, incest in general is a taboo, but this is about the least shocking possible version: consenting adults of comparable ages with no previous social relationship. Even Game of Thrones knows that you need a brother and sister to really go for the cheap shock value. And again, the script spends no significant time at all on questions about how -- or even whether -- any of this matters. Even on something as simple as whether it approves of the relationship or not, the movie is all over the map, and not even in an interesting, interrogative way.
The real mystery is why Ronald and Josh refuse to even acknowledge each other's existence. Davis and Alexis find a cache of old home videos that show a young woman who seems to lie at the crux of the matter, but her identity remains hidden until later, when a death in the family brings both sides together again. When all is finally revealed, not only is it not a surprise, it's downright anticlimactic. Is it any wonder that a script more interested in eliciting unearned reactions can't build up to sell its own biggest turn?
Awkward, unwieldy, and lazily constructed at every step, The Automatic Hate seems amateurish while at the same time convinced of its own seriousness. And while I'm sure Lerner dotes on his creation, it doesn't take much distance to see that it's not nearly as special and meaningful as it thinks it is.
Rating: 1 out of 5