Mike Doyle’s directorial debut Sell By opened NewFest 2019 last week in New York City, and it’s easy to see why it was given such a prestigious slot. The film is a touching, striking look at modern relationships of many types — from a 15 year interracial marriage on the outs, to a relationship between two men reaching the rocky five-year mark, to a forbidden love between a student and his teacher, Sell By uses its phenomenal ensemble cast to look at love from many angles.
At the heart of the film is the relationship between Adam and Marklin, played by the adorable Scott Evans and the equally-striking Augustus Prew. Marklin is a social media influencer. He runs a website called The Detailist, which primarily features staged photos of himself wearing various outfits, that is apparently so popular he gets stopped on the street by random people to take selfies. Adam, on the other hand, is a creatively-unfulfilled painter who ekes out a living by painting on behalf of someone else, the intense Ravella Brewer (a delightful cameo by Patricia Clarkson); he creates masterpieces, and then she signs them and sells them for a hundred grand. Nearing the five-year mark in their relationship, money troubles and creative woes threaten the foundation their relationship is built on; when they met, Marklin was working retail and it was Adam who was able to support his boyfriend, but now that Marklin is rolling in influencer cash and Adam is still barely making a living, Adam finds himself full of resentment, jealousy, and shame.
It’s a testament to the script as well as the actors’ performances that this relationship is brought to such vibrant life in the film and doesn’t grate on the audience. Adam frequently acts out, undermining Marklin’s job and making snarky comments about money, but thanks to Evans’ nuanced performance, we fully understand why he does it. Evans lets us see that Adam doesn’t want to be feeling this way, and is fully aware that he’s being unfair to his boyfriend, but these are also perfectly natural things to be frustrated by that far into a relationship. He just can’t reconcile their current partnership with what it once was, and he’s not sure how to fix that. “Why is it so hard all the time?” he asks Marklin, shaking his head.
The film is also shot and blocked very well, with the actors’ body language and their relative positions within the frame often saying as much about their relationship as the dialogue. When someone leans into someone else, it’s significant. When they don’t make eye contact, we feel it. Doyle also peppers in freewheeling montages of memory at moments of particular tension, a deluge of romantic, warmly-lit early-relationship lust-and-puppy-love imagery that serves as perfect contrast to the chilly blues and grays that make up much of the present timeline. It’s a technique that could potentially be cloying, but it’s deployed perfectly.
Less successful is the unfortunate storyline revolving around Adam and Marklin’s friend Cammy, played by the hilarious Michelle Buteau. She’s fantastically funny, and her work here shows that she should absolutely be given bigger and better roles than the sidekicks she tends to play. However, the less specific said about her character arc — learning to love herself instead of being so desperate for intimacy that she dates (gasp!) a man experiencing homelessness — the better. Buteau absolutely does her best with what she has to work with, but what she has to work with is… not great!
Overall, though, the non-Cammy side storylines are worthwhile. Zoe Chao, who’s had a great year with memorable turns in The OA, Where’d You Go Bernadette, and Living With Yourself, proves that she can turn in deeper character work than she’s usually given the chance to. Her Haley is as desperate for intimacy as the rest of the group, and she wears that desperation more nakedly, so that when she finds herself trapped in a will-they/won’t-they with the 17 year-old student she’s trying to help with his college admissions essays, you’re genuinely unsure if she’s about to make a big mistake. Kate Walsh, too, is memorable as Adam’s confidante Elizabeth; she’s funny and emotional, not just a fierce friend for the main character, but also a wounded, complex person in her own right.
Even when the interconnected storylines aren’t really landing (ahem, Cammy and her homeless boyfriend), the strong chemistry among the talented cast members, the snappy, fast-paced dialogue, and the assured, confident imagery make Sell By one to look out for.
By Eric Langberg
Sell By opened the 2019 NewFest LGBTQ Film Festival in New York.