I’ve always liked Dax Shepard, but I never knew I had a good reason for it until I saw The Freebie. Directed by Katie Aselton, one of the stars of FX’s The League, The Freebie is – for want of a better term – a mumblecore movie about a happy 30something couple who talks themselves into a very bad place. And Shepard is pretty great in it; not only is he funny and amiable, as he has been in many other films, but he’s also a nuanced actor who takes some weighty material and does it real justice.
Aselton and Shepard live in Los Angeles’ hipstery Silverlake neighborhood and are the kind of couple who have a very nice house and life and no discernible source of income. They’re likely creative types, I guess. They also have a big extended group of friends with whom they regularly meet for dinner and drinks, and one night while out with those friends the two come to a realization that any committed couple must reach: they’ll never kiss another person.
It sounds like an obvious realization for a married couple, but there’s certainly a point in a long term relationship where that information goes from being something you know to something you feel. Add to that the fact that this young married couple has reached that stage of life and relationship where sex isn’t a daily – or weekly – occurrence and you have the beginnings of a very bad decision. They’re very happy, but these two have grown up in a post-Baby Boomer world where the dynamics of relationships aren’t the same. Is it bad that they’re not having hot sex every second night? Is it bad that they’ve become acutely aware that they’ll never see another person naked for the first time? Is it bad that they’re… well that they’re grown up now?
They come to the terrible decision to give each other a freebie – one night to have sex with another person. To go any further would be to spoil what comes next, but The Freebie is an examination of the basics of trust and a look at how simple it is to destroy it. It’s also a smart view of the dynamics of emotion versus intellect; these two think they’re smart enough to handle a night of planned infidelity, but the reality is that all the touchy feely self help knowledge in the world can’t brace you for dealing with the reality of massive, painful emotion.
My favorite aspect of The Freebie is that Aselton never answers the question of whether these two did or didn’t cheat; she leaves them each in a position where sex with someone else isn’t just possible but essentially assured, and then she puts the question in your lap. Different audiences had wildly different reactions, and the film is so expertly structured that some audiences didn’t even realize that the answer was never presented in the movie itself.
The Freebie is a small movie, and one that maybe is laser-guided for a Gen X audience. Plenty of younger critics at Sundance seemed to simply not get it, or to feel that the freebie decision wasn’t just bad but unbelievably stupid. The critics who were gradually stepping into the middle age realm seemed to really get it, and those with long term relationships or marriages under their belts especially felt what Aselton was laying down.
And that’s great. A little movie like The Freebie doesn’t have to hit all quadrants. We live in a world where movies pander to as many demographics as possible, and that makes them less personal and honest and real. Not every movie will be for me, and not every movie will be for you. I’m just glad that when a movie is made that’s for me it’s as funny and smart and true as The Freebie.