“Automatic” is the sort of movie in which trouble seems to be constantly brewing beneath the surface, emotional damage lurking at every turn. Whether or not that’s an atmosphere you enjoy will go a long way in determining if you’ll appreciate, or even sit through, its relatively speedy 83 minutes.
It’s an ensemble piece, similar to Crash or any number of Paul Thomas Anderson films, in which the central character is more the environment and circumstances surrounding the movie’s players than any one particular person. And of course, all of said characters are directly or loosely connected, and all their actions deeply affect each other, no matter how intentionally or knowingly.
There is Brad (Sean O’Bryan), who’s getting kicked out of the house by his wife Sara (Jennifer Ferguson, who resembles a young, blonde Mary McDonnell). Meanwhile, he reconnects with his long-estranged half-sister Sam (Brandy Howard), and it becomes clear rather quickly that they have some icky feelings toward each other. (Which is odd, given that O’Bryan played a bit of perv in a recent “Six Feet Under” episode as well. Hell of a way to be typecast.) Then there’s Brad’s studly younger brother Randall (Travis Schuldt)––neither can stand the other, and now Brad is suspicious that Randall is making the moves on Sara. And finally, there’s nice-guy Will (Jay Thames). Will has a dead-end job guarding wardrobe at a TV station, masturbates incessantly, and even wakes up to a timed porn DVD as an alarm. Things start looking up though, when Will rescues Austin (Jamie Ann Brown) from someone harassing her on the street, and the two appear to fall for each other rapidly. However, from glimpses of Austin’s behavior early in the film, we know, but cannot alert poor Will, that there’s more than meets the eye to this young lady.
There is a lot of powerful material in “Automatic,” and it most certainly leaves an impression when it’s all said and done, which is more than can be said for many low-budget, independent features. The nice guys most certainly do not finish first, and some very illicit behavior is rewarded, and rewarded without judgment, as there seems to be a prevailing theme (one espoused, it turns out ironically, in the film by Austin) that fate is fate, for better or worse, and there should be no shame in letting it take its course.
Sometimes, that message and the overall level of discomfort in watching the film is rammed down the viewer’s throat with seasick camera work, shots that go in and out of focus––anything to reinforce the idea of instability and horrible things on the horizon.
A miscasting bug seems to have also bitten the production. “Automatic” is very much a serious film, and it’s been made with care to reflect as much, but screenwriter Thames would have been better off letting someone else verbalize his pain on screen, and O’Bryan, while a fine actor, is egregiously miscast as the oddly charming alcoholic brute capable of luring gorgeous, vulnerable women. The women, for their part, fare much better. Ferguson and Howard are not just luminous-looking, but play the part of spurned spouse and sexually adventurous vixen, respectively, quite well.
The one final idea running throughout the movie, and most overtly symbolized in bookended, photo-album flashbacks through each character’s lives, is innocence corrupted, whether some of the characters are too far gone to even register the idea or it’s smacked them wholesale by the closing credits. And for all its flaws, “Automatic” will have you stopping to assess your own life’s path for just a moment.