A couple that can no longer muster up any passion in the bedroom finally dissolves when the wife admits she cheated. An unemployed, promiscuous twenty-something suffering from arrested development tries to figure out how to get her life back on track. A club DJ yearning to be a photographer tries to suppress his personal loathing and self-doubt. A woman quickly ascends on the career ladder, but alienates the people who are closest to her.
The sentences above may look like brief synopses for edgy cable dramas starring photogenic twenty-somethings that are fodder for young actors during pilot season. Instead, they rank as short snippets of the four stories from X/Y, the second film from Ryan Piers Williams. An omnibus movie filled with moody New Yorkers in a frazzled state of mind, it demands good actors to fill in a lot of the screenplay’s gaps. Unfortunately, the results are mixed, with only a couple of the lost, disillusioned millennial types resonating.
The young actors in X/Y give bracing turns, and many of them are forced into heavy close-ups during sex or erratic behavior with new romantic conquests or past one-night-stands. The film begins with a prolonged take of Sylvia (America Ferrera) and Mark (writer/director Williams) having sex, approaching climax. The shot capture half of her face and half of his, yet it’s the only time during this chapter the two actors appear in the same shot. When not under the covers, Sylvia and Mark struggle to speak with each other. He admits that she sometimes makes him unhappy, and she snipes back that she slept with a co-worker, Jason.
There is a palpable tension to these opening scenes, its authenticity heightened by how Ferrera and Williams are, in fact, married. Sylvia, the central focus in the fourth story and in the periphery for the first one, is the perfect encapsulation for a busy, confused, seemingly thick-skinned but emotionally frail generation. The Ugly Betty actor makes the biggest impression here, as a woman trying to keep all elements of her life in check but failing to cope with her mistakes. We see Ferrera try to hold back her scathing criticisms of others, but her loose lips only reveal Sylvia’s own insecurities further.
The rest of the ensemble cast fares worse. Melonie Diaz, so terrific in 2013’s Fruitvale Station, is slighted by the intriguing if ultimately shallow character she has to play. As Jen, a bed-hopping college grad with a messy apartment and few career motivations, she often comes across as a stereotype of washed up youth and a hookup culture. In one of X/Y’s most uncomfortable moments, she returns to the home of an older man she just had a fling with, only to find his wife standing at the front door. The conclusion to her chapter nudges Jen toward some kind of change, but the story ends too early.
The third and least affecting tale deals with Jason (English actor Jon Paul Phillips), who, like Jen, is an attractive, drifting adult without a lot of emotional maturity. He is at a remove from his life and work, begging to feel something. Frequent sessions of casual sex and his job as a model ensures Jason feels completely superficial. Phillips is a striking screen presence, but Williams cannot quite figure out how to hook the audience into the character’s ennui. (A story development involving this character with good pal Mark from the first vignette also rings false.)
X/Y, which premiered at Tribeca last year, feels like a film with a limited target audience – middle-class New Yorkers in their late twenties going through personal and professional turmoil. The characters are narcissistic and sex-obsessed, often finding more valuable connection on their phones than they do in person. These are characters that prefer checking their e-mail than talking to their respective partner or lover. On the pulse of something amiss in this generation of lost, lonely people, Williams fills X/Y with dark brown city skies and dissonant music to capture this mood. However, Williams is less convincing as an actor, unable to give much inflection to his role as a screenwriter trying to find work.
His four vignettes are all connected by mood, place and the characters that populate them, with each protagonist too seldom aware of how their decisions impact other people. Although the stories are interconnected, the chapters deal with disconnect. Unfortunately, X/Y is a dreary, downbeat film that doesn’t manage to offer anything much of note to the increasingly crowded subgenre of New York dramas featuring sexy singles.
The film is also impatient to move on to the next story, and it feels that each of the first three segments end too abruptly, without much of a resolution for its central character. Each section of the films serves as a promising beginning to a modest, metropolitan indie, but condensed to around 20 minutes apiece, only one of the four – the one with Ferrera’s Sylvia as the focus – is compelling as a short. X/Y brings feelings of intense isolation across, yet does so through stories that need more of a character arc to stand on their own.
X/Y is a collection of staid, sexually charged New York stories that is rarely compelling, despite some good performances.