You’d be forgiven for thinking that a film about porn and masturbation set in Los Angeles would be the latest release from the Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow school of romantic comedy. But Good Dick, written and directed by Marianna Palka, who also plays one of the main characters, is a subversive, refreshing take on the genre – a touching and funny look at the confused relationship between two highly damaged people.
Jason (son of John) Ritter plays a nameless character who works in a video store with a bunch of fellow slackers, filling the monotonous hours with pseudo-intellectual conversations about capitalism and the end of the world. Homeless, he sleeps in his car, washing himself with Wet Wipes and brushing his teeth using bottled water. Obsessed by the enigmatic, dishevelled young woman (Palka) who comes into the video store every day to rent hard-core porn, he begins to pursue her (you could call it stalking) by worming his way into her home, and essentially refusing to leave. Their relationship progresses inch by tortuous inch, from watching porn together on opposite sides of the sofa to sharing a bed (no touching allowed) to a twisted variation on the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship – just without any physical intimacy.
Palka refuses to pander to generic notions of romance and behaviour, and instead plays with the usual stereotypical gender roles. Ritter is needy, desperate for affection, and willing to take all sorts of abuse to be near the woman he cares about. He washes her hair, cleans the house, and cooks dinner, taking on traditionally female, submissive roles. Traumatised by some unknown event, Palka shirks away from any kind of emotional connection, insulting him constantly for being crazy enough to want to be with her, while at the same time craving his presence. She’s the dominant one, calling all the shots. But her emotional scars are obvious to Ritter and to the audience, and by the time her version of a happy ending rolls around we’re relieved rather than appalled.
What makes the film so refreshing is that Palka is unafraid of tackling female sexuality head on, and offers an entirely realistic – if perhaps surprising to some viewers – take on women’s attitude to porn and masturbation among other things. Very well written, the screenplay avoids the heavy-handed, expository dialogue rampant in other relationship films like Before Sunrise, or In Search of a Midnight Kiss – another LA-set indie film released a few months ago (Good Dick is the better film of the two). Thankfully, few male fantasies are indulged in the film, in contrast to so many comedies where the ordinary guy always ends up with a super model, or at least a woman who looks like Katherine Heigl.
Palka deservedly won the Best New Director’s Award at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. Let’s hope that Morning Knight, the production company she and Ritter recently co-founded, will continue to put out clever, entertaining indie cinema like Good Dick.