In the script development game, producers, agents, and executives always seem to be on the lookout for “contained thrillers” or “limited location horror.” Because these movies take place in few locations, they are inexpensive to make and don’t always require major star power to sell. They are almost always concept driven, that is they have a unique premise or a new twist on something old. Think Paranormal Activity or Brake.
Written and Directed by: David H. Steinberg
Starring: Robinne Lee, Sam Jaeger, Jon Huertas
Romantic comedies are usually exempt from this category of filmmaking, not only because they are entirely different in a tonal sense, but also because they typically need very recognizable actors to sell and promote. The Proposal was a sub-par movie, but it starred Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock, and of course Betty White, and that made all the difference. Romantic comedies are also, oftentimes, more about character than a unique plot concept and follow a time honored script of “boy meets girl but then loses girl” or “two rivals fall in love after initially disliking one another.”
Miss Dial, the feature directorial debut, for David Steinberg (no relation to your humble reviewer) is assuredly a romantic comedy, but one with an interesting new concept in the genre. To be sure, it has its share of romantic comedy archetypes and story threads: there’s the lead woman who is trying to get her life in order, the cheating boyfriend, the loyal to a fault friend, the mysterious stranger who offers the possibility of a better –and truer—love, and of course the happily-ever-after ending. But this movie also offers an interesting conceptual angle and does it in only a few locations—a device which romantic comedies don’t typically employ.
Miss Dial’s heroine is Erica, who is trapped. She’s trapped in her apartment where she works as a customer service rep for an alphabet soup conglomerate. All day long, she fields inane questions from people having trouble with the company’s products. She is also trapped in her personal life, with a boring job and a boyfriend whom she suspects is unfaithful. The movie’s conceptual hook is that Erica never leaves her apartment (except at the very end, when she is liberated from the indoors as well as the mundane and unsatisfying path her life is on), and all interactions are done over the phone—mainly in split screen.
Tired of listening to the incoming calls of idiots and whiners, Erica makes the decision to try random, outgoing calls and strikes up real conversation with total strangers. They talk about life and worries and say real things. The connections are truly person to person, as opposed to the patronizing way Erica must act to solve consumer problems. Here is the theme of the movie. We are all trapped in a commoditized culture and cannot act as independent, feeling creatures.
After turning the world on its head for a few beats, Erica dials the number of Kyle, an EMT. What starts as chit chat and flirting quickly grows into something more, and Erica risks her job to get spiritually closer to Kyle. The ending offers a nice twist, which is another nod to the thriller genre where a plot turn surprises the viewer.
Miss Dial is not without flaws. It’s a bit hard to believe Erica would suddenly tack the way she does. She’s frustrated with her job and boyfriend, but she never bottoms out to the point where her epiphany seems natural. The tropes of boring job and jerk boyfriend are quickly introduced so as to hurry us along to Kyle and the meat of the story. The limits of the limited location choice are exposed here. There are only so many silly phone calls Erica can take before the writer (also the director) must introduce conflict, and since Erica is confined to her desk and couch and bathroom any more stretching out of this meme would try a viewer’s patience. As a result, Erica’s characterization is rushed and never feels as three-dimensional as it could be.
The actors do well with some of the mundane dialogue given them. Watching people flirt can drag quickly, but the players are able to carry off some of the extended exchanges with enough skill so as to avoid yawns.
Though undoubtedly an affordable movie to produce, Miss Dial does not feel like it was made on the cheap. The photography, editing, and acting are all first-rate and avoid some of the usual pitfalls associated with “indy” filmmaking.
Miss Dial is available to stream on Netflix, I-Tunes, and a few other places and can be purchased on Amazon. It doesn’t reimagine the romantic comedy genre, but its inventiveness succeeds and may encourage more experimentation in this genre. And perhaps this will lead to more calls for “limited location romantic comedies with unexpected plot twists.” God knows we could use a few more of those as opposed to more slasher and toture porn franchises.