Don’t let the uptick in big-cast movies fool you: Ensemble films are difficult to make. When a script gets a projected budget in creative development, “ensemble” adds dollar signs and story challenges. Each actor needs to get a moment in the star circle, and each is competing for top billing (read: money). Critically reviled studio ensembles Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve highlight everything that can go wrong when too many characters compete for screentime. But the indies have found simple ways in recent years to revive the genre, whose most enduring success story is still 1983’s The Big Chill. Clea DuVall’s debut feature, The Intervention, is one of a mighty handful of indies to eschew the star system and place up-and-coming actors often relegated to supporting roles into the shared lead spot. The return on investment of this one is an honest, intimate portrayal of three couples who endure a weekend of emotional maintenance while trying to convince a fourth couple to get a divorce.
Annie (Melanie Lynskey) and Matt (Jason Ritter) are perpetually postponing their wedding and trying to keep Annie on the wagon. Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) and Jessie (DuVall) have yet to discuss moving in together after three years of dating. Jack (Ben Schwartz) and Lola (Alia Shawkat) have a huge age difference between them and are only living for the moment — but it’s pretty obvious that moment might end any day. Somehow, Peter (Vincent Piazza) and Ruby (Cobie Smulders), the only committed couple with children, are the ones who need the marriage intervention. They snap like dogs at each other, but the other three couples are in no position to give out advice. Everyone gets a chance to be annoying or terrible to one another, and the many convos these folks have realistically trace the bizarre turns that little quibbles take before becoming full-blown arguments.
During a tense dinner conversation, for instance, Peter and Ruby jab back and forth until he accuses her of being a Nazi sympathizer. It’s ridiculous, and yet Peter’s impulse to make the accusation kind of makes sense — Ruby’s drunkenly trying to make a point about Hitler’s charisma, which makes her vulnerable, and both are trying desperately to wear down the other’s armor. Writer/director DuVall is an expert in tension and release in these group scenes, with Annie’s drunken non sequiturs cutting through the spat with chatter about TV and her abnormal Pap test. Something about this palatial house in the country brings their anxieties to the surface, and the presence of freewheeling pansexual Lola — who has to be reminded to wear clothes — tips these 30-something couples over the edge.
DuVall’s focus is on her cast (with standard medium shots), as is often the case when actors take their first turn behind the camera. But she’s on point with her character blocking, moving people — and the camera — just enough to give equal screentime to all and a clear sense of the space. Duvall’s spare, simple style also extends to her writing, but not always to great effect for a messy relationship story that demands some complexity. The third act’s resolutions are a little on-the-nose, and while the emphasis of this film is on dialogue, it’d be nice to just see these characters “being” without talking, as a host of speeches toward the end deflate the tension and evolve this dramedy closer to a predictable rom-com.
Still, it’s rare for films to capture what it’s like for a relationship to come to the brink, and then miraculously adapt to a new way of being, sometimes better than it was before, and other times just different. The Intervention may not redefine the genre, but it’s a solid addition.