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'In Stereo' Is More Than Just Young Creatives in Love, in New York, Again

Details make In Stereo a better movie than its many clichés might suggest.


In Stereo

Director: Mel Rodriguez III
Cast: Micah Hauptman, Beau Garrett, Melissa Bolona, Mario Cantone, Sean Cullen
Studio: Circus Road Films
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-07-03 (Limited release)
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While watching the first 30 minutes of In Stereo, yet another New York-set relationship drama, viewers might fixate on some essential questions:

1. Why does English-language indie cinema still think modern tales of love and sex among young creatives can only happen in New York or LA? It’s the 21st-century equivalent of the pastel-tinted world of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, in which everyone’s a big city journalist or interior designer. It reflects a limited world-view at best, at worst contempt for those whose work is not a craft or a vocation. Why not write a glossy, witty romance between an electrician and a dentist from, say, Swindon, just for the challenge?

2. Why should viewers care about this film when a character's record collection is instantly more compelling than the character?

3. Could we please, finally, retire the slightly messy cocker-spaniel hair as visual shorthand for sexy and artistic?

4. And can we also retire "crazy" as a catchall epithet for men to use against inconvenient girlfriends?

Granted, these questions are distractions, not plot points in In Stereo, whose title serves as a metaphor for the complete, objective view of one’s life. Achieving such an understanding is aided here by self-destruction, recrimination, and therapy, not exactly in that order.

In Stereo mixes these themes and a choppy chronology within a '70s aesthetic. Initially, this is signaled by the opening title cards and neon griminess of the nighttime scenes, as well as a series of split-screen walking sequences set to lively retro-sounding funk, soul, and R&B, recalling the look of Saturday Night Fever, or maybe a white hipster appropriation of a Blaxploitation thriller.

That aesthetic turns increasingly irritating as we see that all of the female characters here are tall, blond-ish (with the aforementioned cocker spaniel styling), which makes telling them apart initially difficult -- especially since several of them are sleeping with a photographer named David (Micah Hauptman). His story shapes the film: following a decision to move in with Brenda (Beau Garrett), an actress, their relationship implodes. David seeks to assuage his guilt about this by being "a good boyfriend" and jumping into a wholly dysfunctional new commitment with Jennifer (Melissa Bolona), a model and "emotional eight-year-old".

Much of the film depicts David as an angry, nervy mess. He flakes out on his career obligations to spy on Jen, as he suspects her of cheating on him with his best friend Chris (Kieran Campion). David's woes unspool between flashbacks, occasioned by a conversation with his long-suffering therapist, Sean (Sean Cullen).

In the meantime, Brenda pursues an unsatisfying relationship with a die-cast, handsome but dull new boyfriend and an unsatisfying career. Brenda’s interactions with her catty agent (Mario Cantone), while entertaining, are clichéd, as is the apparently inevitable acting class sequence, featuring self-serious improvisations by conventionally pretty young women. Brenda isn’t immune from such self-absorption, coasting on past successes, though she has enough insight to understand that there are "worse things" than bad TV.

One of these things might be her reconnection with David. If only it were less straightforward and less obviously telegraphed. Her work and new boyfriend serve as mere diversions. That said, we do get to see both Brenda and David actually working at their jobs, albeit briefly, rather than having said jobs serve only as shiny, aspirational backdrop as they so often do in mainstream romances.

These sorts of details make In Stereo a better movie than its many clichés might suggest. It creates an appealing chemistry between Brenda and David and boasts naturalistic dialogue (though counting the number of "Fuck yous" in 90 minutes gets a little tedious). It also subverts the genre with a pleasing lack of "cute." No one falls over in heels or falls prey to unlikely misunderstandings, the break-ups and fights are vicious and awkward on screen as they might be in life. In Stereo offers an ambiguous, satisfying ending for Brenda and David.

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