“The Relationtrip” premiered at SXSW this weekend and this quirky rom-com seems geared to the festival’s core audience of young slacker-hipsters. The film, co-written and co-directed by and co-starring Reneé Felice Smith, falls into a category of film that can best be described as “twee-dious.” Like its too clever by half title, “The Relationtrip” tries to be precious and funny, and at times it just simply tries too hard.
The film opens on a Sunday, with Liam (Matt Bush) and Beck (Smith) in a car silently fighting about whether the window should be up or down. It’s a petty annoyance or power struggle for the couple; they both look battered and embittered. They have just spent four days together and are returning home from the experience.
“The Relationtrip” pivots on that old adage that traveling with someone is how you really get to know them. When the film flashes back to Thursday, Liam and Beck have not yet met. He’s asked by his best friend Buddy (Nelson Franklin) to perform at a local salon in the band Fuck Dragon. Beck decides to go to the concert with her gay best friend Franklin (Brandon Kyle Goodman). When Buddy doesn’t show up and Liam has to perform the band’s song about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches solo, Beck is charmed. As they meet cute after the concert, Liam and Beck bond over being independent and totally cool folks, even though he’s a “loser clinging to the past,” as he says, and she’s alone because her gay bestie spends more time with his boyfriend than with her.
These two “independent, totally cool” people (as they like to describe themselves) who just met, impulsively decide to go away together for the weekend. They choose to go to a house in the desert that meets their requirements: It has two bedrooms, a pool and an espresso machine. There will be no deep conversations about the past and no sexual obligations. It’s a “relationtrip,” although the characters can’t quite put it so elegantly.
Smith and her co-writers, C.A. Gabriel (who co-directed) and Dana Scanlon, do get some mileage on this road trip with the idea that men and women can be platonic friends (although Liam and Beck do become more than that). A meal they share together in a diner learning tidbits about each other is kind of charming, if familiar. It gives a sense that the film will be a fun ride. But then Beck uses the bathroom and encounters Chippy (voiced by Eric Christian Olsen), a blue furry monster — a nod to “Ted”? — that is both Beck’s imaginary childhood friend, the devil on her shoulder and the baggage she is bringing with her on this trip and into this relationship. Meanwhile, Liam is haunted by his ex-girlfriend Eden (Amy Hessler), a model-burlesque dancer. She speaks to him through the photos in his wallet.
Once “The Relationtrip” has revealed the insecurities of its characters (Liam also has mommy issues), viewers can root for Liam and Beck to help each other combat their demons — if they care about them. Part of the film’s problem is that once Beck and Liam show their true anxieties, they become considerably less likable. That may be a true-to-life observation about relationships — that as we get to know our partners, the bloom comes off the rose. This idea is beautifully expressed in a breakfast scene where, over eggs and coffee, Beck and Liam literally pull off masks from each other. The metaphor may be heavy handed, but it is a moment of magical realism that works here because of what the characters reveal to each other in this scene.
There are other clever moments in “The Relationtrip.” A split-screen sequence has Liam and Beck lying in their separate beds but literally facing and mirroring each other on the screen. Another inventive scene involves a fantasy sequence with more than a dozen images of Liam reacting wildly as he watches a burlesque dance by Eden. These visual gimmicks are effective in conveying the mindsets of the characters; this is also why the film is frustrating as it tries too hard to make its points.
When Liam provides Beck an anklet, the gift has a different meaning that is overly symbolic. Moreover, when Beck reveals a bathing suit underneath her shirt, Liam questions her fear of being nude. These tricks may be useful metaphors for possession and compromise, but they are presented in somewhat clunky fashion. It’s clear that the issue being expressed is not the real issue; the characters do not have to otherwise underscore this.
Another episode when Liam runs after and spies on Beck when she fails to repeat back to him, “I love you” also strains credibility — however realistic this issue is for Liam in his relationships. (It is revealed that he acted the same way with Eden)
What is more telling is how the characters say one thing only to reverse it later, causing confusion and frustration for their partner. “The Relationtrip” includes an impromptu therapy session, provided by Dr. Lipschweiss (Linda Hunt) and where the newly formed couple hash out feelings and insecurities. When Chippy becomes involved, this episode — and the film — really starts to spiral out of control.
Liam and Beck’s fighting ultimately prompts a knock-down, drag-out fight between Liam and Chippy and while it may be comic to see a grown man fighting a monster made out of fur and foam, it fails to amuse here. The film, like the couple’s relationship, seems to have worn out its charm by this point.
If “The Relationtrip” is suggesting that couples should “let the crazy out slowly,” that may be sage advice, but it also insists on savoring the small pleasures like a PB&J sandwich. Such is the film’s uneven mindset and why it only half works.
Reneé Felice Smith is engaging in a sweet and slightly irresistible scene where she seduces Liam at a “snowball dance” in their desert house, and she does show some backbone when Beck becomes annoyed with Liam for telling her whom she can befriend. But by and large her character, described by Chippy a “quirky barista with body issues,” never quite gets past the manic pixie dream-girl trope.
Smith’s co-star, Matt Bush, generates some smiles with his dry wit and comic timing during a striptease scene, but mostly his Liam is underdeveloped because he has a severe case of arrested development.
For the supporting roles, Smith has called in favors from her “NCIS: Los Angeles” co-stars, Linda Hunt and Eric Christian Olsen. While both performers seem to be game for their roles, they hardly distinguish themselves in their work here.
One of the running jokes in “The Relationtrip” has Liam telling Beck that he is “workshopping” things. This film still needs a bit more workshopping itself. The good ideas and gimmicks come through, showing the promise that's there, but overall it misses the mark.