In “The Overnight,” a Mainstream Film Dabbles in Non-Monogamy

The Overnight stars Taylor Schilling, Adam Scott, and Adam Scott's unfortunate goatee. 

What happens when non-monogamy is explored in an open, non-judgemental environment? New film The Overnight gives us a glimpse.

The Mark and Jay Duplass–produced film begins with Los Angeles newbies Emily (played by Taylor Schilling of Orange is the New Black) and Alex (played by Adam Scott of Parks & Recreation) having sex. As they’re finishing up by masturbating, they are interrupted by their son running into the room. Right away, we’re thrown into the couple's awkward sexual dynamics, which we never really leave. That the film deals frankly with sex is refreshing—especially for a mainstream Hollywood flick in wide-release. This review contains some plot details, so if you're serious about spoilers, stop here. 

Huffington Post critic Andrew Fish said The Overnight peers into “L.A. oddness,” but as I watched the film in a packed Portland screening, I saw some of my own city’s oddities reflected in the film’s caricature of white, yuppie, city-dwelling lifestyles. In route to the dinner party that makes up the majority of the film, Alex all but panics when he discovers Emily has brought along some “two-buck chuck” as a gift. “This is like what 19-year-olds cook with,” he says, and proceeds to rip off the bottle’s label. When they arrive, Alex explains that there is no label on the wine because it came from an organic winery that recycles bottles. These kinds of self-conscious jokes at the expense of upper-middle-class sensibility are arguably the film’s best moments. Of course, no film about reflective, oddball hipsters is complete without Jason Schwartzman. He shows up here as Kurt—the unusual, sensitive husband to Charlotte (Judith Godrèche)—who meets Alex and Emily at the park when he hysterically alerts them to the fact that their son is eating a gummy worm.

Jason Schwartzman: moderately insufferable. 

While The Overnight does throw some Portlandia-style punches, writer/director Patrick Brice is interested here in exploring loneliness and desire through struggling marriages and unfulfilling sex lives. We learn quickly that Emily and Alex don’t masturbate to finish up sex because they necessarily want to; they do so because they can’t sexually fulfill each other otherwise. There are plenty of unfunny, unnecessary dick jokes that enter here, all of which would have been more effective had they not framed male self-consciousness as weird and unmasculine. And, sure, presenting heterosexual marriages with unhappy sex lives isn’t exactly new thematic territory, but what does feel unique about The Overnight is the way it shows two different married couples opening up about modern sexuality, fidelity, and their desires, all of which are addressed here within their marriages and outside of them.

The film is quite short (only 79 minutes), and it only takes about 15 minutes for some sort of non-monogamy to become heavily foreshadowed. While the kids fall asleep, Charlotte places her hand on Alex’s. Kurt convinces his wife to show Emily and Alex breast-pump how-to videos that she stars in topless, and Emily and Alex end up discussing Charlotte’s breasts at length. Emily tells Charlotte she finds herself “craving feminine energy.” After an over-exaggerated pot-smoking scene and as the night keeps descending, Emily says she feels that the night has moved from “a freewheeling California vibe to a swinger vibe.”

The best way the film handles sex is through each character’s evolving perspective of sexual expression. While Kurt and Charlotte are pretty open from the get-go—neither have any qualms about skinny-dipping toward the beginning of the night, for example—Alex is self-conscious and hesitates. Instead of pressuring him into it, Emily meets him where he’s at, and they both decide together to keep their underwear on. (Their nudity levels do change as Kurt helps Alex confront his issues, but it’s important that Emily never blames him for his discomfort.) Emily is hesitant throughout the movie, too—she is the tense, American counterpoint to Charlotte, the free-spirited Frenchwoman who asks Alex directly if he would have sex with her. But when Alex confronts Emily, we finally see some of her repressed desires come out.  It isn’t until then that the night’s sexual undercurrent is made explicit between all four characters.

Though the film doesn’t quite succeed in painting open sexual relationships within marriages as a normal, healthy, non-scandalous option, it does come close. The problem is that the film obscures many of its moments of openness and confuses them as jokes. When Alex confronts Kurt about his supposed attraction to Emily, Alex’s anger is played off as a joke, as if extramarital attraction should always be a secret. Certainly, having a sense of humor about sex is an important step in being comfortable with differing realities of it. But even the one scene that was really, truly empathetic toward non-monogamy—the one scene where non-monogamy is taken seriously, no jokes allowed—was almost entirely re-suppressed by the regret-tinged tone of the scene that followed it. Even though the couples do explore sex together, the film still feels a bit squeamish about non-monogamy, like it’s okay for one night but never for more than that.

Despite all this, The Overnight does a lot of things right. The performances themselves were charming and great; Schilling’s facial expressions were hilarious and evocative, and Scott’s character feels like who Ben Wyatt would be if Parks & Recreation had aired on HBO instead of NBC. I liked how the nudity in the film is not just reserved for its female characters. I liked the final sex scene’s attention to consent. I liked the look at non-monogamy, even through the lens of what seem like two pretty traditional marriages. While the film is not perfect, it is entertaining for what it is: a compact illumination of a subject its audiences previously may have found taboo. That counts for something.

Related Reading: In Mainstream Media, Polyamory is Getting More Attention

by Jess Kibler
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Jess Kibler is a Portland-based writer, editor, and sad-song collector.

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