Irony drips off the title of Modern Love Is Automatic, since, despite the mechanically detached demeanor of its protagonist, Zach Clark’s film posits a world in which finding and maintaining amour is anything but routine. Nurse Lorraine (Melodie Sisk) slogs through days listening to a co-worker blather on about her engagement and honeymoon, and spends her nights shying away from the advances of her uninteresting, horny boyfriend. As with virtually everything that occurs in her monotonous existence, Lorraine can barely muster a response when she catches her beau in bed with another woman, or when she is subsequently compelled to room with Adrian (Maggie Ross), an overly cheery nitwit who, having just finished at the top of her rinky-dink modeling-school class, winds up working at a store where pseudo strippers peddle mattresses with their bodies. Be it with Lorraine’s officemate or with Adrian’s relationship to Mitch (Carlos Bustamante), love abounds. Or, rather, some phony facsimile of it does, with Lorraine’s wholesale indifference to everything and everyone slowly justified by society’s pervasive commoditization of female sex, as well as by the perversion, duplicity, and misery that plagues those who look for contentment in the arms of others.
In the face of a life not worth caring about, Lorraine—motivated by a magazine found on a bus—impulsively decides to become a dominatrix. It’s a position for which the tall, buxom beauty is qualified physically but not temperamentally, and Clark generates mild humor from the sight of a latex-encased Lorraine lording over her submissive clients with blasé impassiveness. This new career is an extreme attempt to connect with the world in a fundamentally affecting way, but such concerns are wisely never underlined by the filmmaker, who shrewdly keeps Lorraine silent for nearly the story’s entirety.
In this respect, Modern Love Is Automatic eventually becomes too one-note for its own good, with Lorraine’s stone-faced refusal to articulate internal thoughts or external responses—even in grainy black-and-white insert clips featuring Lorraine addressing the audience—resulting in repetitiveness. Still, Clark’s minimalist compositions and sharp comedic beats are formally assured, amplifying his material’s deadpan humor as well as reflecting his heroine’s state of mind and heart. His static compositions capture her soul-sucking ennui, and his frequent, unexpected blasts of death metal over placid scenes convey the rage and fury that lurks beneath Lorraine’s impeccably stylish ‘50s-by-way-of-‘80s façade.
Modern Love Is Automatic superficially resembles scores of mumblecore (and post-mumblecore) indies in that it’s about twentysomethings searching—aimlessly, clumsily, desperately—for purpose and direction, as well as features, via its dominatrix plotline, a marketable out-there conceit. Yet Clark never succumbs to insufferable solipsism nor to cheeky look-at-this! shock tactics. Instead, he holds true to his simmering-sadness atmosphere during the captivating Lorraine and more annoying Adrian’s various role-playing stabs at finding happiness, and through to the film’s stunning conclusion, in which Lorraine delivers a single-take karaoke rendition of New Order’s “Age of Consent.”
Cloaked in half-darkness and poised, somewhat unsurely, in front of a glittery backdrop, Sisk expresses an astounding array of conflicted emotions, affording a brief, striking glimpse at the wounded yearning and fear cosseted behind her iron-curtain defenses. Coming at the conclusion of an amusingly straight-faced dramedic turn, Sisk’s climactic number is a mini-marvel, interjecting piercing pathos into material on the brink of going stale from an abundance of similar scenarios in which Lorraine and Adrian’s paths inevitably lead to dead-end humiliation and disappointment. Anything but automatic, hers is a subtly nuanced performance to love.