Tribeca Film Festival 2012: ‘Free Samples’

No one ever said growing up would be easy.

In Free Samples, Jillian (Jess Weixler) does not know what she wants to do with her life. She’s taking a break from Stanford Law School and from her boyfriend, trying to explore a career in the arts. Adding to her confusion, she honestly self-assesses her own lack of any creative talents. After a night of drinking and smoking with friends, Nancy (Halley Feiffer) and Wally (Jason Ritter), and Tex, a guy she met at the bar (Jesse Eisenberg), Jillian wakes up hung over and in desperate need of coffee. However, she agrees to fill in at Nancy’s job in an ice cream truck. She gives out the two flavors of free samples, chocolate or vanilla, but meets a wide variety of people, who come her way during one day.

Three brief vignettes echo Scrooge’s ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, as she meets a little girl, her boyfriend’s new fiancé and an aging former actress, Betty (Tippi Hedren). All physically resemble Jillian, with blonde hair and blue eyes. They remind Jillian of what her life was like, could have been like and could become.

In that post-college window of time, change happens quickly. Not making choices or failing to act also critically affects the future, in a world that never stands still. It’s a period when people often make decisions that will chart the course of their lives: choosing careers, starting families, deciding who they want to be.

Coming of age films such as The Graduate (1967), The Paper Chase (1973), St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) and Reality Bites (1994) point to how each generation uniquely confronts the scary, but age-old confusion that comes with becoming a grown-up.

Free Samples breaks no new ground but is an enjoyable movie. It reflects today’s less rigid society and the greater admiration of “snarky” wit (funny sarcasm) and self-expression in living life. In a PopMatters interview, Weixler noted a couple of overall messages of the movie are, “it’s OK to course correct. Hopefully, it helps you become more open. And everybody has bad days”. (Contrast that with The Paper Chase of 40 years ago, where the student who drops out of Harvard Law School tries to commit suicide and no one shows up at his birthday party.)

Weixler knew Eisenberg from traveling in the same New York indie circles. Eisenberg had already committed to the project. The writer, Jim Beggarly, had seen some of Weixler’s work, so offered her the job without casting auditions. Weixler had played opposite Ritter as a love interest in Peter and Vandy, which premiered in the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. However, she described treating Ritter as “a super annoying kid brother” in Free Samples. Weixler did not know Feiffer. “But immediately I felt really comfortable with her. I think we have the same sense of humor or we know how to make each other laugh really quickly. So we immediately started giggling and laughing and were like, ‘Oh, yeah, we can totally play this right,'” she said.

Weixler described Hedren as a classic actor, who was happy to be involved in an offbeat, indie movie.

Weixler plays Jillian’s confused, cantankerous, scowling frustration with a youthful charm. She bounces off Wally’s outrageous ridiculousness in a friendship laced with sexual tension. Ritter captures in Wally the likeableness of the guy who makes people laugh with a clever stupidity, similar to a medieval court jester. Their friendship accurately reenacts the flirtation that is pure fun because it will clearly never lead anywhere, and no one will ever be seriously hurt.

Jillian: I don’t really like your band.

Wally: Why not?

Jillian: You’re not very good.

Wally: (stunned, confused, slightly hurt) All bands suck at first. …

Wally: You’re the best looking woman I’d never ever consider having sex with.

Jillian: If I’d have sex with you, you’d do it.

Wally: That’s not fair. I’m a guy. I’ll have sex with anyone who’ll let me.

Although Weixler seems like a natural fit for the role, she grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, learning Southern manners, meaning a lot of “please” and “thank yous”. Thus, she found Jillian’s lack of ceremony “wickedly fun to be able to do.” Unlike Jillian, Weixler also is not from a family of lawyers. Her father is a photo retoucher and her mother is a nurse. At 17, Weixler came to New York and entered Julliard. In 2003, she graduated. For Weixler, playing Jillian required more than a simple comedy.

“The most challenging thing was finding her progression though the movie, so it’s not like she’s just in a sour mood all day. People come in and have an effect on her, even though for the most part she’s pushing them all away. But slowly and subtly every interaction that she has is having some effect on her. That was the tricky part in figuring that out — how to move her forward,” said Weixler.

As Tex, Eisenberg plays the intellectual, articulate student, with the slightly blunted, choppy affect and the need to speak his mind. If his role seems a bit familiar (The Social Network), it is. His ability to bring about Jillian’s happiness seems a bit questionable, throwing the plot back to the easy, retro solution for women.

However, the script economically conveys the pain and humor in life, with a string of odd yet familiar conversations and characters. It showcases the talent of today, which will continue to develop into tomorrow. Weixler has already started her next project, another independent film, Look of Love. She plays Annette Bening and Ed Harris’s daughter and Robin Williams is the neighbor.