Katie Aselton has turned up in a few indie films in recent years, including “The Puffy Chair,” where she played the girlfriend of Mark Duplass. Duplass is now her husband, and a fairly significant force in the indie film world himself, but he might have some competition at home. “The Freebie,” Aselton’s debut as a writer and director, is an honest, unadorned relationship drama that suggests a new talent on the horizon.
Somehow this very good drama stars Dax Shepard. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. He and Aselton play Darren and Annie, a married couple whose seven-year relationship is still full of love but lacking in lust. They adore spending every minute of every day with one another; they just can’t remember the last time they had sex. Neither partner feels frustrated by this, though — and the fact that they’re OK with near-celibacy is what starts to alarm them.
They wonder if one solution might be to have a “freebie,” a night where they each get to sleep with someone else, one time only, no questions asked, and let us never speak of it again. Perhaps this would reignite the spark in their own relationship. Annie’s sister (Leonora Gershman) tells her this is a terrible idea (which hardly needs saying), but the two proceed with the plan anyway.
The scenario reminds me a little of “Humpday,” which starred Aselton’s husband and Joshua Leonard, who makes a brief appearance here at a dinner party. Both films are insightful in their examination of a young marriage’s external influences, but where “Humpday” was mostly a comedy, “The Freebie” is mostly a drama. While it has its lighter moments, too, Aselton resists the urge to turn the premise into a wacky relationship comedy. The dialogue and performances are naturalistic, and Aselton’s cinematographer, Benjamin Kasulke — who also shot “Humpday” — has an informal, documentary-like style.
Many of the scenes take place in Darren and Annie’s bed, the two of them side by side, talking the way married couples talk. As such, the film lives or dies by the performances — even one dull actor would tank the whole thing. But Shepard and Aselton are both terrific: earnest, believable, and unforced. The press notes says Shepard was a last-minute replacement for an unnamed actor who wasn’t working out, but you’d never know it by what’s in the film. You’d think he and Aselton had worked together for years, so comfortable and natural is their rapport.
Also very natural are the reactions Darren and Annie have to each other’s words and actions. Men and women are bound to view a thing like this differently, and “The Freebie” makes no judgments on who’s right or wrong, or on the eternal question of whether monogamy is “natural” for humans. The film is so straightforward it almost feels slight — it’s only 78 minutes, too — but there’s an impressive emotional punch packed into it. Perhaps only a first-time filmmaker would be daring enough to make a movie this “small,” rather than dressing it up with extra characters or plot twists. Aselton keeps it simple, and in the process makes an astute, powerful film.
B+ (1 hr., 18 min.; )