Let’s get this out of the way first: Zoe Lister-Jones is one hell of a force of nature, and those who doubt her might be humbled by her work. I initially skipped Band Aid when it screened at IFFBoston, because it seemed painfully twee, just from the logline alone: A struggling married couple forms a band in order to have their fights play out in a musical and creative context. It sounded both unbearably cutesy and not particularly novel (there’s an excellent scene in Noel Wells’ Mr. Roosevelt that operates along the same lines), and it seemed odd as a choice for the closing night film. Well, I’m here to say that I was (mostly) wrong.
Band Aid is a deeply moving and well-made drama that’s saddled with some unfortunate comedy that kind of distracts away from the skillful work being done when there’s not an SNL alum on screen. And it’s Lister-Jones’ talent and commitment to her project, which she writes, directs and stars in that really makes it work.
Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) are a married couple who can’t stop fighting over incredibly stupid shit. They get up into blow-up arguments over dishes and blow-jobs and everything in between, and both are secretly nursing wounds and doubts. They’ve suffered a tragedy in the recent past, and each person feels like they’ve failed in some way since then: Anna’s had a book deal fall through and is now working as an Uber driver, and Ben’s art has taken a backseat to his work as a corporate graphic designer. One day, after fucking around with some instruments while high as kites, they figure out that they’ve got some musical talent, and decide to form a band using the one ever-present source of material that they have in their lives: Their arguments. And as their band begins to grow and find success, the two begin to realize that they’re not necessarily really solving the problems at the heart of their relationship, and their entire future is thrown into doubt.
The fundamental flaw within Band Aid is that Lister-Jones feels pulled by two vastly different genres: On one hand, she excels at crafting a kind of Cassavetian honesty in her dramatic dialogue, and the fights she has with Pally over the course of the film have a serious weight to them and fundamentally feel real. They’re both quite excellent in their parts and they have a brilliant chemistry, especially when they’re focused on the drama of the moment, and you get a sense of these characters’ inner lives through the writing. There’s a really climactic tracking shot late in the film that’s impeccably directed and choreographed, which is some of the best pure filmmaking you’ll find at the indie multiplex (an easy feat when you have the fantastically accomplished Hillary Spera as your DP). Band Aid is worth recommending for those scenes alone. It’s also worth it for the beautiful resolution to the film’s main conflict, which is sweet and earned well by the time the credits start to roll.
But it’s the twee indie bits that feel strangely incongruous with the beautiful dramatic talent that surrounds them, and it just feels like a kind of idle distraction from what should be the main course. That’s not to say it’s badly done — Lister-Jones wisely puts all of the weirdness in the mouth of Fred Armisen, who could read the listings in the phonebook and make you laugh, and his recovering sex-addict drummer has some of the best gags in the entire film — but the movie’s not interested in sustaining a tone that can accommodate both styles on anything more than a scene-by-scene basis. The songs, as well, are painfully bland, which feels like an essential element for a music-centric plot as this one, and there’s nothing that necessarily will stand out in your mind after you leave the theater. There’s a great and powerful healing at the heart of this film, and all the bland songs in the world can’t stop it from working.
Still, Lister-Jones has established herself as a filmmaker to watch in more ways than one, and it’s absolutely exciting that we have another voice, as especially one talented as hers is, in a scene that’s slowly becoming more amenable to spotlighting the women working within it.
Band Aid is an interesting first feature that, even though it doesn’t totally come together, stimulates a pretty powerful emotional response from within the viewer, and the skill and talent on display from the all-women crew is absolutely commendable and deeply impressive. Just don’t go in expecting the lightweight comedy you’ve anticipated from the synopsis, and you might be genuinely surprised.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.