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Robert Hull [Film Festival 04.26.12] comedy drama

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Put your fears on hold, Free Samples is a Jesse Weixler movie that won’t have men running for the hills with their hands covering up their precious regions. That’s not to say the Teeth star’s turn in this comedy doesn’t have bite but this time the snappishness comes from verbal dexterity … well, jokes, irony and a huge dose of sarcasm anyway.

Director Jay Gammill and screenwriter Jim Beggarly choose to take a day in the life of Jillian (Weixler), a law school dropout whose friend Nancy (Halley Feiffer) asks her to help out by giving away free ice-cream samples from her mobile food truck. Nancy has a family crisis to deal with and leaves Jillian in charge on handing out the free stuff: it’s chocolate or vanilla, how hard can that be?

The setup is a simple one but provides the movie with a (literal) procession of characters who stroll up to the truck to be met with Jillian’s withering humor and eyebrow crinkling, lip-curling expressions of hatred, resignation, annoyance and scorn. Jillian is in desperate need of coffee, following (yet another) long night at a bar, and the customers reap the whirlwind of a woman with a hangover who is just not loving her job right now.

OK, so Free Samples is a talk-driven movie – especially when The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg shows up as a confident, potential suitor for Jillian, but it’s also really hypnotic to watch. This is because the other benefit of reflecting a single day in a character’s life is the chance to watch time passing, to see the light and shadows change, and to know where you are in the journey. The folksy, trippy, minimal soundtrack really helps establish the mood and works beautifully with Gammill’s camerawork.

There’s an especially dreamy sequence as the movie heads towards its final reel, with the late afternoon soon creating a hazy, sleepy feeling. In fact, Jillian dozes off behind her truck – but when she’s woken by a customer, not only is she brought back to the real world but the movie’s big turning point … turns up!

What’s clever – among a bunch of things in a very likeable movie – is that the sharpness in the comedy, and Jillian’s resentment of life in general doesn’t mean that you end up disliking her. And it could have been very easy to cross the line and have her come over as obnoxious, as opposed to what she really is: a bit lost.

Extra kudos should go to Gammill for adding Tippi Hedren (The Birds) to the cast. Her cameo as Betty, the old-time movie star who lives across the street, adds glamour, a conscience and a warm-but-realistic heart to Free Samples. Her quiet presence is the right contrast to Jillian’s cooler-than-though dose of attitude.

That it ties things up in a conventional romantic-comedy-type place is both a shame and a surprise. Free Samples doesn’t need to sweeten the pill to make its point (or should that b sprinkles?). We can see the route Jillian’s day has taken, and where the new road may lead and it’s not necessary to move toward a feelgood ending. Though, as feelgood endings go, at least this one has the decency to be low-key, intimate and believable.

Free Samples is 80-minutes of satisfying movie goodness without the side orders of schmaltz and sentimentality. Creamy, dreamy stuff.

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