Easier with Practice

It’s a rarity for a director’s first film to be as confident and effective as “Easier with Practice” is. And for any film, let alone a debut, to address difficult subjects with this much insight, humor, and humanity is almost miraculous. There are filmmakers who couldn’t produce something this good on their tenth try, and here Kyle Patrick Alvarez has done it right out of the gate.

Alvarez’s screenplay is based on a GQ article by Davy Rothbart, and it concerns an introverted 28-year-old writer named Davy Mitchell (Brian Geraghty) who is driving around the southwest United States with his brother, Sean (Kel O’Neill), to promote his book of short stories. This book hasn’t actually been published, mind you, but self-produced copies are available after the readings.

While at a hotel in Albuquerque one night, Davy gets a random phone call from a woman named Nicole (Kathryn Aselton) who seductively asks what he’s wearing. Nonplussed, he replies, “Clothes, I guess.” Apparently quite skilled at this, Nicole soon has Davy engaging in a bit of steamy phone sex with her. She gets his cell number (this first rendezvous was on the hotel phone) and says she’ll call again.

It becomes a regular thing. Every night, while Sean sleeps in a hotel bed, Davy stays out in their station wagon and talks to Nicole. It’s mostly about the sex, but it becomes a relationship of sorts, too, with post-coital conversations — the equivalent of cuddling, in Davy’s words. Nicole’s primary interest is dirty talk, though, and she won’t ever give Davy her number, which is blocked from his caller ID. Everything is on her terms. Davy is smitten, and stuck.

You can guess how some of this will play out: Davy is awkward with women in person, much more comfortable with the distant, mysterious Nicole; Sean (who cheats on his own girlfriend at every opportunity) makes fun of Davy for having a phone-sex girlfriend. But the film’s last act is a total surprise, a game-changer that brings a whole new level of meaning to the story.

Alvarez and cinematographer David Morrison favor long, unbroken takes and very little camera movement. A less savvy filmmaker approaching a story centered on phone conversations (not a very visual subject) might have tried to jazz it up with skewed angles and lots of cutting, but Alvarez takes the opposite approach and, somewhat paradoxically, makes the film even MORE interesting. We’re able to focus on Davy’s face and body language, to really understand him as a character.

This puts a lot of weight on actor Brian Geraghty’s shoulders, and his performance, somewhat comparable to Ryan Gosling’s in “Lars and the Real Girl,” is terrific: understated, honest, and uncontrived. Between this and the upcoming “Hurt Locker,” Geraghty — who’s been toiling away in smaller roles in smaller movies for years — could become a star.

“Easier with Practice” could have been a disaster. First-time filmmaker, difficult subject matter, lots of telephone conversations, little-known lead actor — one shudders to think how indulgent and wrong-headed this could have turned out. Here’s hoping audiences get a chance to see how well it succeeded, against the odds.

B+ (1 hr., 44 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a lot of harsh profanity, vulgar dialogue, and extremely graphic sexual language.)