If there’s any kind of indie movie that arguably never need be seen again, it’s the kind featuring intersecting tales of frustrated romance among various young, hot New Yorkers. Writer-director-actor Ryan Piers Williams (The Dry Land) makes an exceptionally poor case for the genre with the initial chapter of X/Y, in which he plays Mark, a scruffy-looking screenwriter who’s just learned that his live-in girlfriend, Sylvia (America Ferrera, Williams’ real-life wife), cheated on him with a co-worker. Their bedroom argument hits every imaginable relationship-meltdown cliché, with Williams’ own passive-aggressive performance a particular liability. It doesn’t help when Mark is next seen engaged in a conversation with his agent (David Harbour) that plays like a sketch-comedy notion of the conflict between commerce and True Art, with the agent crowing that Warner Brothers loved Mark’s new script, then blithely adding that it needs to be rewritten linearly and its central concept—one part played by three different actors—has to be ditched. (“They also need you to end it with a big chase sequence.”) At this point, X/Y seems utterly tone-deaf.
Then something odd happens. The second chapter—there are four, each named after and focusing on a single character—introduces Jen (Melonie Diaz, from Raising Victor Vargas and Fruitvale Station), a young woman first seen deliberately leaving her bag in the apartment of a Tinder date so that she’ll have an excuse to call him and see him again right away. For a while, everything in Jen’s chapter feels acutely observed and painfully credible, from a glimpse of the increasingly desperate texts she sends the guy (a brutally quick, updated version of Jon Favreau’s answering-machine fiasco in Swingers) to her awkward attempt to give a cute barista her phone number. One might chalk the difference up to Diaz being a much better actor than Williams, except that Jen then meets up with Sylvia, who turns out to be her best friend, and they proceed to have a blow-up that’s every bit as phony and contrived as the end of Sylvia and Mark’s relationship in the previous chapter. Nor is it Ferrera’s fault—she’s doing her best with the material she’s been given. It’s just that the quality of Williams’ script varies wildly, from superb to dire.
Those extreme fluctuations continue right to the end, with the ratio of dire to superb running about 2-to-1. The third chapter addresses Mark’s best friend, Jake (Jon Paul Phillips), with whom Mark is staying after leaving Sylvia; its centerpiece is an unexpected sex scene that merits bonus points for audacity but is less than convincing, to put it mildly. On the other hand, a scene in which Jake, who works part-time as a model, reluctantly agrees to have coffee with a fellow model (Dree Hemingway), is practically Rohmerian in its lightly stringent portrait of conflicting desires. It’s hard to believe that the same person wrote and directed the entirety of X/Y, as there’s no rhyme or reason regarding which parts work beautifully and which completely face-plant. In any case, the final chapter, which swings back around to Sylvia (still sleeping with her co-worker, played by Common) and her shattered relationship with Mark, makes the “Jen” and “Jake” chapters feel largely superfluous, as there’s no real connection among these tales apart from the overly broad rubric of big-city romance. Should Williams learn to discriminate between his good and bad ideas, though, look out.