A family is, if nothing else, a repository of history, much of it submerged, kept secret. But secrets are vexingly difficult to keep among family members. Someone is always willing to do the digging to uncover one’s own family history. There is a sense that by examining where one comes from, one can better understand oneself. Or, to put it differently, a secret rarely belongs to oneself; it is nearly always a part of a family history.
These issues of family and personal identity are given vibrant life by director Justin Lerner’s “The Automatic Hate.” Davis Green (Joseph Cross) is in the midst of a crisis with his girlfriend (Deborah Ann Wolf), when Alexis (Adelaide Clemens), a woman claiming to be his cousin, shows up out of the blue. Davis never even knew that his father (Richard Schiff), a well-known scholar of developmental psychology, had a brother. Davis sets off on a path of discovery that brings him into the wild orbit of a shadow family he never knew, headed by his previously unknown uncle (Ricky Jay), he never knew. As he meets his unknown relatives, he begins to uncover the secret that tore his father and his brother apart, all while falling for his surprisingly sexy cousin.
Often, hearing someone talk about his family’s history is like hearing someone talk about his dreams: it’s not terribly interesting unless the story is really crazy. And, to Lerner’s credit, the story here is pretty wild, and therefore deliciously satisfying. Lerner has cooked up a steamy Southern Gothic family psychodrama, transplanted it to New England, and directed it all in the plainspoken style of an earnest Sundance drama. Even though all these elements are in tension, the results are remarkably gripping. At times, it’s hard not to wish that Lerner had adopted a more extravagant style befitting the baroque nature of his story, but, in the end, it’s hard to argue with the way Lerner teases a sincere tale of self-discovery only to side-swipe us with a twisted melodrama straight out of Tennessee Williams.
Lerner occasionally indulges in outright cliche—an on-the-nose lecture about the nature/nurture debate, a scene that uses a bar fight as a bonding experience—but more often he displays an adeptness at small moments that speak volumes about the characters. Here, Lerner is assisted by an exceptional cast. Clemens is particularly compelling as the kind of girl you might think about shtupping, even if she is a little kooky, and she’s your cousin. “The Automatic Hate” also offers the singular experience of watching veteran character actors Richard Schiff and Ricky Jay angirly snipe at each other and even engage in fisticuffs.
“The Automatic Hate” ultimately questions the extent to which any of us is in control of his own choices. The question is unanswerable, but this much is clear: we can never outrun our actions. Somehow, some way, even if it takes decades, everything we do eventually catches up with us.
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