The shaky handheld cinematography might be conventionally modern, but from its opening white-letters-on-red-background credit sequence to its diligent focus on a wayward loner drifting about the outskirts of society and sanity, Bad Fever has the empathetic soul of ’70s American filmmaking. Writer-director Dustin Guy Defa’s stark indie trains its character-study gaze on Eddie (Kentucker Audley), a socially dysfunctional twentysomething who—while living at home with his dour mom (Annette Wright), hanging out in empty diners, and entertaining stand-up comedy dreams by recording anecdotes on cassette—strikes up a random romance with Irene (Eleonore Hendricks), who lives in an abandoned school and has a fondness for kinky videotaping. Eddie and Irene are kindred misfits in search of some direction and contentment, and if Defa’s aesthetics are mundane, his leads’ performances are not, especially in the case of Audley, whose darting eyes and hushed, stuttering speech express confused longing with transfixing train-wreck magnetism. Bad Fever ends in a dingy motel with an almost unbearably pathetic collision of reality and fantasy. The film’s true melancholic heart, however, is Eddie’s misbegotten comedy-club debut—a rambling, punchline-deficient catastrophe that’s staggering in its mixture of desperation, delusion, and eye-searing awkwardness.