VODepths: What to See (and Avoid) on Demand This Week

In this week’s low-profile VOD releases, off-putting women struggle with bipolar disorder and a ticking biological clock, while horrors come from drug addiction and a vintage radio.

The Donor Party (VOD and select theaters March 3): It may be presented as wacky comedy, but the protagonist’s cruelly manipulative plan here could be construed as a kind of sexual assault. Unhappily single Jaclyn (Malin Akerman) feels like she’s running out of time to become a mother, so she agrees to a scheme concocted by her friends Molly (Erinn Hayes) and Amandine (Bria Henderson). They recruit several unwitting men for Jaclyn to sleep with over the course of one optimally fertile night, under the guise of a birthday party for Molly’s husband Geoff (Rob Corddry). Characters and subplots come and go seemingly at random, and writer-director Thom Harp has no sense of what’s potentially funny about any of them. The talented cast muster a few humorous moments, and Akerman and Hayes have one honest, heartfelt exchange. But even that scene is mitigated by a tired joke about a character accidentally getting high, which drags on for most of this strained, interminable farce. Grade: C

The Year Between (VOD and select theaters March 3): Writer/director/star Alex Heller shows a remarkable willingness to make herself look bad in her autobiographical debut feature. She plays college student Clemence, who’s dealing with both bipolar disorder and, in her own words, a “bad personality,” and both are on full display throughout the movie. Unable to function at school, she returns to her family’s suburban home, disrupting the lives of her well-meaning parents (J. Smith-Cameron and Steve Buscemi) and resentful younger siblings. Clemence is abrasive and insensitive in a way that can’t solely be attributed to mental illness, and that makes it tough to fully engage with her coming-of-age journey. The dark humor is more effective than the earnest family bonding, although Heller’s genuine love and gratitude eventually shine through. As with Clemence herself, those emotions are buried under layers of defensive unpleasantness that are best appreciated with a little distance. Grade: B-

Sound of Silence (VOD March 9): There are some decent scares in the early scenes of this Italian horror movie, relying on the eeriness of an old-timey radio that conjures apparitions only when it’s switched on. The sudden appearance and disappearance of ghosts loses its potency after a while, though, and the movie doesn’t have any other reliable ways of jolting the audience. After a ghostly attack puts her father in the hospital, aspiring singer Emma (Penelope Sangiorgi) returns home to Italy from the U.S., bringing along her boyfriend. Of course they ignore her mother’s warnings not to stay in the family home, and soon they’re also besieged by the ghosts in the machine. Filmmaking collective T3 (Alessandro Antonaci, Daniel Lascar, Stefano Mandalà) generate some spooky atmosphere within a limited space, but the English-language dialogue is awkward, the spirits’ back story is underwhelming, and the lopsided plot ends with a lengthy epilogue that seems like the beginning to another movie entirely. Grade: C+

Punch (VOD and select theaters March 10): The cliches outweigh the tenderness in this wispy, meandering drama about the relationship between a macho teenage boxer and his sensitive gay classmate. Jim (Jordan Oosterhof) sees boxing as the way out of his backwoods New Zealand town, although it’s more the dream of his alcoholic dad/coach (Tim Roth). As a Maori and apparently the only gay person in town, Whetu (Conan Hayes) is a double outcast, and at first Jim goes along with his peers’ homophobic bullying. But when Jim and Whetu are alone, they develop a sweet friendship with the hint of something more. Writer-director Welby Ings piles on the suffering for both main characters, teasing the audience with the possibility of even brief moments of happiness. It’s obvious what’s going to happen as soon as Jim’s dad goes to the doctor, or Whetu decides to strut around town in flamboyant attire. Ings’ intentions are honorable, but the end result is dour and curiously unaffecting. Grade: C+

Craving (VOD March 14): Drug addiction as a metaphor for demonic possession is a strong hook for a horror movie, but director and co-writer J. Horton never finds a coherent way of expressing it. The main action takes place inside a remote roadside bar, where a group of possible drug addicts takes the patrons and employees hostage while a different group of armed vigilantes surrounds the building. Horton deploys copious expository flashbacks, but each new interlude only makes the plot more confusing. The hostages and captors engage in circular arguments that just mark time until Horton can unleash his low-budget creature effects, and it’s hard to care about their dynamic when an opening flash-forward has already revealed that they all end up dead. When the effects arrive, they’re too goofy-looking to take seriously, but Horton doesn’t compensate with any campy humor. He begins with a title card offering the dictionary definition of “junkie,” and that’s about as comprehensible as the movie gets. Grade: D+

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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