Anna and Ben, the central couple of Band Aid, are a familiar sight in any indie movie. Played by Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally, they’re two cool-looking Angelenos in search of inspiration, now navigating their early 30s with an increasing sense of desperation. Their marriage has turned into a constant bicker-fest, and their creative careers seem to have dead-ended (Anna is an Uber driver, Ben a permanent couch potato). In another movie, they might be a nasty couple encountered at a party as a cautionary tale. But Lister-Jones, who also wrote and directed, wants to dig deeper.
Band Aid is ostensibly about the cute way Anna and Ben set about rebuilding their relationship—by turning their many fights (over the dirty dishes, or Anna being “controlling,” or Ben being lazy) into songs. Rather than snipe at each other, why not turn that negative energy into fun little pop-rock numbers, screamed with joy at each other in their garage? But don’t go in expecting an indie musical on the level of last year’s giddy Sing Street. The songs are almost beside the point: Lister-Jones’s directorial debut is a dark and moody examination of a precarious marriage, one that’s perhaps too close to the bone for its own good.
Lister-Jones, who has starred in sitcoms like Life in Pieces, New Girl, and Whitney, previously wrote the similarly caustic indie rom-coms Breaking Upwards and Lola Versus with her husband Daryl Wein. Both explored issues the couple themselves had faced—embarking on an open relationship, struggling with turning 30—and Band Aid has a similarly semi-autobiographical ring to it, though this time Lister-Jones is the film’s only writer. Anna’s issues with Ben seem largely mundane: She wants him to get off the couch, he wants to have more sex. But from early on, it’s clear there’s something more tragic at the heart of their squabbling, something Band Aid spends most of its time digging into.
Pally, a lovable oaf from sitcoms like Happy Endings and The Mindy Project, is extremely well-cast as Ben. There’s something simultaneously charming and pathetic about him, even as he loafs around doing nothing in particular; he’s a perfect Seth Rogen type, the kind of goofball you could easily see falling for and just as easily getting frustrated with. Lister-Jones, meanwhile, is playing off her own tendency to get cast as type-A nags; she does her best to lend more depth and pathos to Anna, though her early arguments still feel rote.
There simply isn’t enough tension to this relationship to really be invested in its renewal—Anna and Ben just seem sick of each other, and both of them are infuriatingly prone to flying off the handle about nothing in particular. Ben’s flippant suggestion to “turn their fights into songs” comes after a marathon session of the couple screaming “fuck you!” at each other; eventually, their yelling gains a vaguely melodic quality, and they’re off to the races.
All of this would be fine setup for a lighter movie, but Band Aid is almost impressively uninterested in being anywhere near as cute as its one-line premise. Fred Armisen drops by as a sex-addicted weirdo neighbor who becomes Anna and Ben’s drummer, but it’s as if he’s been summoned from a different movie, one with the tone of an off-kilter Portlandia sketch. Lister-Jones’s movie is much bleaker than that, and has a lot of backstory it wants to get through. The film’s latter half is more concerned with fleshing out the sad history of Anna and Ben’s relationship than playing up its funny musical numbers.
Band Aid can be congratulated as an interesting effort: a film with all the hallmarks of the twee indie genre, but very few of its forced-feeling quirks. Lister-Jones made the film with an entirely female crew, a unique achievement that’s worth highlighting all by itself, and there are moments (especially in the film’s harrowingly emotional sex scenes) where Band Aid has a sense of perspective and empathy often lacking from such sad-sack, small-scale indies. But the film too often struggles to find a balance between being searing and charming; at best, it’s a notable curio, one Lister-Jones may well build on for her next feature.