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Love and Abstinence

Director Julie Davis barely connects with I Love You, Don't Touch Me!

With I Love You, Don't Touch Me!, first-time filmmaker Julie Davis has made a low-budget movie about love and abstinence among under-30s that looks less to the films of her generational peers -- Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming or Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, for instance -- than to Woody Allen's quirky romances of the '70s. Davis's film, though, lacks both the hipness and visual daring of a Gen-X romance and the caustic, intellectual edge of Allen's best works; it turns out to be sometimes charming, always endearing and rarely riveting.

What this movie does offer is something hard to find in recent American film, Gen-X or Allen-penned or otherwise: a convincing sweetness. It may, in fact, be the film's lack of cynicism that makes it seem a little bland. Most of its characters are likable and decent, and we sympathize with their plights. It surely took a good deal of courage for Davis to reveal herself in I Love You, which is largely autobiographical. If only her courage had energized the quality of the script and acting.

As the film begins, 25-year-old Katie (an appealing Marla Schaffel) sees the man she's fallen in love with rolling around with another woman; fleeing the scene, Katie's hit by a car, and the accident becomes a metaphor for her "romantic holocaust." Soon after, Katie is told by an old friend that she's getting married, and Katie instantly resents the pressure to shack up. She gets the news during dinner with a close friend named Ben (Mitchell Whitfield), but she's not interested -- much to Ben's chagrin -- in being more than "just friends." Adding insult to injury, one of Katie's neighbors fornicates loudly next door while she's trying to sleep; Katie sings opera to drown out the din.

Then, by accident, she meets Richard (Michael Harris), a smooth, Anglophilic, at times obnoxiously smug composer two decades older, and begins to drop her guard a little. But as she struggles to make her name as a lounge singer in between temp jobs, Katie defends her virginity to almost everyone she knows: Ben, her busty friend Janet (Meredith Scott Lynn), the predatory Richard, even her parents.

The film's dramatic structure, in a way, resembles Chasing Amy's, and indeed, many a Victorian novel: an independent-minded woman who has rejected heterosexual love (and in this case, sex) learns to join the mainstream after innumerable internal monologues. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book, and a good one, because it allows a writer to describe both a nonconforming character and a social milieu, and to play the two against each other.

For the film to generate dramatic tension, though, we have to see the situation as artfully ambivalent -- the film and its characters have to convince us that virginity is a real, noble option in a world overrun with thoughtless promiscuity. The two lifestyles, ideally, could maintain a sort of push-pull dialogue throughout the film. Katie needs to seem, as her friend suggests, like a kind of Everywoman, "torn by contradiction" in her search for both emotional and physical satisfaction in a heartless world. As it is, we see Katie as an overly serious, uptight Jewish girl, albeit one more skilled than most in rationalizing her abstinence.

Low-budget first films can rarely be counted on for high-priced talent, so maybe it's unfair to point out the inconsistent quality of the acting in I Love You. But inconsistent it is. The most noteworthy performance comes from Lynn, who seems born for the role of Katie's hedonistic friend Janet. (In the screenplay, she's referred to as "Barbra Streisand on speed.") Lynn has the sort of sassy, bad-Jewish-girl manner that TV and cinema audiences love; it would be remarkable if her career didn't take off soon after her appearance in this movie. Schaffel is for the most part convincingly frazzled and insecure, if not quite as electric as she needs to be to focus the film, while Harris sometimes overplays his role as the sophisticated-but-insufferable older man.

More detrimental, though, is Whitfield, who plays Ben, Katie's all-too-platonic friend. He's a pudgy, nice, balding guy who conveys sweetness but not enough charisma or fire, and at times he overacts. (Sometimes, as in an argument over coffee between Katie and Ben, their chemistry simply doesn't work.) It would be easy to look at every successful Woody Allen movie (the director of I Love You surely has) and demonstrate how Allen's persona combined nebbish likableness with a charisma at turns nervous, hip, intellectual and almost dangerously unpredictable. But Whitfield's not there, at least not in this role. His deficiencies would be forgivable if his performance didn't point to problems with the film as a whole: Despite some dirty words and flashes of bare breasts, the whole thing is too goddamn nice.

The other big problem here is the script. Some of it is just clunky or ordinary. Like the acting, it's not really bad, but in making a talky romance, Davis has set herself up against some stiff competition. The back-and-forth between the men and women in the film is just not as charged as it could be. There are plays, movies and short stories where talking about love and sex could seem almost as exciting as really doing it. Here, as much as we sympathize with Katie, we side with her parents: We'd really like to see her stop talking in circles and -- for her own sake -- get going.

I Love You, Don't Touch Me!
Rated R.
Directed by Julie Davis. With Marla Schaffel, Mitchell Whitfield, Meredith Scott Lynn and Michael Harris.

 
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