As a title, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious has already been taken, by Sigmund Freud, or else, one might guess, Ben Petrie could have considered it for his short film Her Friend Adam. A squirmy treatise on sexual insecurity and relationship oneupmanship, the 17-minute picture reworks the dreaded territory of the millennial relationship comedy to exhausting and exhilarating ends. (Out of Sundance, in fact, Filmmaker’s Erik Luers suggested his own alternate title: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: The Early Years.”)
In Her Friend Adam, Petrie and real-life girlfriend Grace Glowicki are hipster couple Robert and Liv, whose entirely ordinary evening is upended when Robert can’t help but steal a look at Liv’s incoming text messages. Questioning her relationship with the supposedly gay Adam (Andrew Chown), Robert sets off in Liv a response of unrivaled power and blistering sexual humiliation, capped off by a loudly feigned orgasm that will erase in viewers any memory of Meg Ryan’s similar reenactment long ago in When Harry Met Sally. (Glowicki picked up a Special Jury Award for Outstanding Performance at Sundance.)
The uncomfortable line the short walks between comedy and drama is, in fact, the source of its power. “The power of genre-based narrative archetypes is very real, but when it is detectable, I have a hard time watching the movie,” writes Petrie in an email. “I really tried to avoid landing on ‘it’s a comedy!’ or ‘it’s a drama!’, instead striving just to follow my intuition about where on the spectrum each moment should land. It’s funny — people who watch the film in a crowd generally laugh and would call it a comedy. But people who watch it on a private Vimeo link come back with ‘that was intense!’ and would call it a drama.”
Her Friend Adam feels personal and, when queried, Petrie admits that it is: “A little while before writing the film, I was overcome with a private lash of jealousy while hanging out with my girlfriend and a mutual friend of ours. It came out of nowhere and dissipated within a couple of hours — but for those hours, it was red hot.” He says the idea existed as just a comedy sketch idea until, one day, he was standing in line at a dollar store when Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” came on the radio. “Something about that song needled straight to the heart of this feeling that I guess I was still processing in my subconscious,” he writes. Petrie went straight home and improvised the film into an iPhone in “a sweaty three-hour session.” Later, Petrie and Glowicki rehearsed for days but saved her masturbation sequence until four days before principal photograph. When Petrie realized the scene’s power, he says he told his DP, Kelly Jeffrey, that they would have to change up their planned visual style, from elegantly framed Woody Allen/Gordon Willis compositions to something approaching the emotional handheld of Blue is the Warmest Color.
Her Friend Adam is Petrie’s fifth short in nearly five years and is clearly his breakthrough. When not directing, he 1st ADs his friends’ films in and around Toronto, and he writes every day. “Right now I’m working on my first feature script. Ninety minutes — hallelujah!” — S.M./Photo by Grace Glowicki