A detached study of sleepy domestic torpor seizing up into tragic desperation, Christine Jeffs’s debut feature, Rain, bears a surface resemblance to The Virgin Suicides and Ratcatcher. But while her fellow first-time directors Sofia Coppola and Lynne Ramsay poised their films at the intersection of memory, lucid dream, and child’s-eye impressionism, Jeffs never lands on a discernible vantage point for observing the slow decay and sudden implosion of one New Zealand family on a beachside summer holiday, save for the bookending narration by resident eye-roller Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki). The sullen 13-year-old is de facto caretaker of her little brother, Jim (Aaron Murphy), while their parents, Kate and Ed (Sarah Peirse and Alistair Browning), putter around and drink deep. Mom especially—the booze blurs the edges of a fracturing marriage, and soon abets a fling with the yummy local loner (Marton Csokas), on whom Janey has her own odd designs.
Adapting Kirsty Gunn’s slim novel, Jeffs has empathy to spare for the state of permanent infuriation that puberty can unleash, and her compositions are clean and evocative; aided by John Toon’s cinematography, the film transpires under the surreal glare of a sunburnt hangover. The visual subtleties don’t come to bear on the storytelling, unfortunately—the dialogue is cumbersome, the simpering soundtrack and editing more so. (Jeffs cuts from a heavy-breathing clinch between Kate and her boytoy to sadsack Ed tottering down the beach with ice cream cones for the kids.) And for all its quotidian longueurs, Rain simply lies in wait until it can pounce with an overtly foreshadowed—bordering on fetishized—disaster ending. The last reel’s downward crawl is ugly and predatory; even after the credits start rolling, Jeffs finds occasion to stroke a dead colt one more time.
Predators of the friendliest order, married swingers James and Theresa tool around in their RV on weekends trolling for similarly open-minded partners. Affectionate and easygoing, fit and attractive well into middle age, they’re far and away the best-adjusted couple in Sex With Strangers, a choppy, overlong documentary about “The Lifestyle” (title-provider for an earlier swing flick). Under their wing wriggle a deformed love triangle of fledgling polygamists: passive-aggressive viper Julie, self-pitying grotesque Sarah, and foaming asshole Calvin, who proves bewilderingly irresistible to his doormat duo. Whenever directors Joe and Harry Gantz (creators of HBO’s voyeurama Taxicab Confessions) leave us alone with these sniping, surpassingly atrocious creatures, initial fascination soon curdles into exasperation.
The Gantzes’ project is a documentary in both the classical and softcore senses—copious licking, some grinding, no money shots—though a few scenes appear staged, most blatantly the moment when a handsomely endowed ‘styler stands up to model his goods, which just happen to be obscured by a perfectly placed wine glass. But jawing far outweighs pawing in Sex With Strangers, which posits multivariable coupledom as an endless series of negotiating, schedule juggling, air clearing, and screaming, sometimes interrupted by awkward group gropes and medium-stakes Twister. (The film wholly confirms The Onion‘s recent report “Orgy a Logistical Nightmare.”) Most of the swingers appear to be compensating for a gap in their main relationship—they’re either guiltily bored or hanging on for dear life. The exceptions are our motor-home Ma and Pa, forever driving into the sunset. As James exults as they stake out a new trail, “We’ve got a lead, a shaved pussy, and a full moon—Jaysus!”