Strained Sweetness Leads to a Bitter Feeling in ‘No Stranger Than Love’

Obsessing over gross small town stereotypes, facile symbolism, and mawkish philosophical exposition, this is an uneven mess, and misses opportunities.

There’s a nice scene at the opening of first-time director Nick Wernham’s No Stranger Than Love. Lucy Sherrington (Alison Brie) is standing amid some tall reeds at day break. Photographically speaking, this is the “golden hour”, when the sun spreads generously across the landscape. Lucy, straight faced but with wide, imperious eyes, conveys a mix of earnest resignation that probably governs most of her life, and an artistic appreciation of this sublime moment for which she sought. This is a scene which attracts artists to small towns despite the monotony and isolation which comes with the terrain.

The shot does justice to its lead actress and her environment. We get a sense that Brie, who has proven she can play both characters with subtle dramatic arcs (the oft-neglected wife Trudy Campbell on Mad Men) and those with outsize quirks (Sleeping With Other People), is about to exercise a little bit of each in a visually well composed film with a good eye for natural light.

However, almost as soon as the characters open their mouths, No Stranger Than Love plunges deep into the Razzie abyss, grossly defying so much of what its promising first shot represents. Lucy’s day job is as a high school art teacher in small town America. That’s a decent skeletal premise, but No Stranger Than Love destroys it and itself by obsessing over gross small town stereotypes, facile symbolism, mawkish philosophical exposition about “love” and “poetry”, and a considerable dose of sexism.

Lucy’s only problem in life is that she’s approached by buffoons everywhere she goes. Be it the middle-aged geek spouting out pretentious philosophical generalities in the hope that he may win Lucy’s heart, old men spewing out crude remarks, or a high school principal who sexually harasses Lucy every chance he gets, there’s apparently no escape. Even in her home — spacious, pristine, and smothered in sky blue colors as to overbearingly emphasize that saccharine ethereality will win the day — Lucy receives “quirky” late night overtures from men in town.

Lucy handles each with supposed small town gal aplomb — take it all in stride with sweetly polite passivity and gentle rejections, because small town America is great and who is Lucy to disrupt the status quo? Brie is barely believable in these scenes — delivering lines with melodic frustration, she imitates a woman whose duty it is to be, as the saying goes, “sweet as apple pie”. But it’s a begrudged imitation. At one point when an all ladies gossip circle drops by her home for a weekly dating status conference, Lucy goes to the kitchen and tries to block the sounds of their voices with her hands over her ears. But it may as well be as if Brie is trying to block out the script, as well.

Somewhere amid this grossly stereotypical context (even if all this is supposed to be some sort of irony, it fails miserably), there is a plot. Lucy may exude sweetness and virtuousness, but she’s also having make-out sessions with the small town squeeze, Clint (Colin Hanks), a married high school gym teacher. Even here the film doesn’t have the guts to go all-in. Clint is a man-child and a doofus, punctuated by his high school varsity coach jacket and the tall soft-serve ice cream cone he laps up while clumsily planning another make-out session at Lucy’s house. The two haven’t had sex yet, thus coating what is still adulterous behavior with another mawkish layer of artificial innocence.

After Clint has Lucy strip down to her lingerie — a de-robed state, which the film will unctuously exploit for a lingering several minutes — he requires first that she profess her love to him before they go any further. Lucy does, but only half-heartedly, and Clint mimics falling into a black cartoon hole from where he continually mouths to Lucy to rescue him as he “falls”.

Soon a diminutive bookie (Justin Chatwin) who likes to deliver bad poetry arrives on the scene to look for Clint. He instead meets and falls for Lucy, and we’re treated to more cringe worthy dialogue and elementary school level couplets.

Forcing such strained whimsy on Brie and Chatwin is a major misstep, since the two have an easy chemistry that could have flourished over a couple of walking scenes and some natural dialogue. Alas, the film is shackled to a grossly uneven script, and so for the third act we hardly see the two of them together. Instead, Lucy confesses to some embarrassing things at a town fair by employing some even more embarrassing metaphors, and other plot holes are filled in a manner that one might consider “strange”, though they’re mostly terribly contrived.

Save for its sparse use of natural settings, No Stranger Than Love uses many loud colors which make day scenes look like a candy land. The characters also have a penchant for sweets. Lucy winds up hiding in her student’s tree house one evening to get away from all the madness, and in the morning he makes her a hot chocolate for breakfast. After watching No Stranger Than Love, however, a stiff drink might be in order, instead.

RATING 1 / 10