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Cinema Signal: A debut comedy that's nothing to laugh about. MOBILE version |
. "Sensitivity Training"

This femme variant on "Anger Management" (Jack Nicholson and Charlie Sheen versions) is a well-meaning psycho/science comedy and a debut effort by director/writer/producer Melissa Finell which got picked up for release from the LA Film Festival. While it runs a smart 87 minutes, it tends to defy dramatic engagement. So, it's not exactly a smash debut but, hey, a theatrical release (two play dates as far as I can tell) is paydirt for anyone starting in the business and that's worthy of respect even if high praise isn't likely to be forthcoming from anyone outside of participants, friends and immediate family to whom it might well be a masterpiece.

Dr. Serena Wolfe (Anna Lise Phillips, "Animal Kingdom") is a microbiologist heading up a lab project aimed at finding the reason for a particular antibiotic resistance, with a research grant hanging in the balance. So far, so good. The wrinkle in the setup is Wolfe's tone and temperament. When she's not tongue-lashing her staff at every turn, she's blowing up relationships with insult grenades in every other corner of her single life.

A perfect model for a transformation? If only the writer-director knew how to get us there with the skill required.

When her boorish (and farcically exaggerated) tic of verbal abuse reaches the point of social suicide, her continuation on the project and, hence, her career, call for sessions with a shrink. This is where we meet harmless-as-a-butterfly Caroline (Jill Alexander). What ensues is a repartee that forms a bonding between the ladies that wavers more than an undecided voter (and introduces a "what kind of relationship did you say this is? element).

Although there's a certain sweetness about the efforts the social misfit scientist makes in order to improve herself and get onboard with the rest of humanity, reasons for a wide audience to care have dwindled away by the scene in which we learn about the underlying causes of her disorder, and the insight does little to compel endearment. It's also too late for sympathy.

One can suppose there's a diagnosis for a person with no control over what should be career-ending impulses and self-hatred behaviors, but it's never cited in those terms and it's not exactly funny. One question the story raises is, how did this character get this far?

Aussie actress Phillips is clearly doing her best to make something of a script that leaves so much to the creativity and personality of the actress in the lead role, but she's no (age-adjusted) Reese Witherspoon or Emma Stone (despite being able to boast veteran status with more than 40 credits, including shorts and TV).

Having seen this on Vimeo, my sense is that this little film started out as a short story which was expanded to theatrical length -- taking the core of the idea and diffusing it with a bloated, dithering quality. Other than that, a first-timer's masterpiece.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Anna Lise Phillips plays Serena Wolfe, scientist, tongue lasher.

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