Some people feel most at home burrowing in the depths of other people's pain, and Jason Ritter's unnamed character in Marianna Palka's "Good Dick" is clearly one of those people.
A clerk in a video store, he develops a heroic crush on a particularly troubled customer -- a young woman with dirty hair who, every afternoon, wafts into his store on a black cloud of depression and rents a stack of cheesy '80s soft-core porn videos. Encouraged by her hostile unresponsiveness, the clerk steals her address from the store database and shows up at her anonymous Westside building one night after work. As the young woman reluctantly lets him into her apartment, and, even more reluctantly, into what passes for her life, she and the clerk fall into a platonic sadomasochistic relationship.
So, synopsizing it does the movie no favors. But "Good Dick" carries its messed-up, highly improbable premise so lightly and gracefully that it ultimately comes off as a sweet, plausible and curiously grounded love story -- and touchingly old-fashioned for a movie about the adventures of a serial masturbator and the homeless kid who stalks her.
Writer-director Palka (who also stars as the porn customer) brings a feeling of low-key realism to the micro-budgeted movie by shooting in a handful of familiar locations around L.A., and it helps that she and costar Ritter are boyfriend and girlfriend in real life. But the good vibes that emanate from "Good Dick" have much more to do with Palka and Ritter's sensitive treatment of their characters, whom they love so much it's contagious, than with any pragmatic production decisions.
It's clear that things have happened to both of these characters, but their past traumas are hinted at mostly in passing. Palka's character's distrust of human contact runs so deep that she uses Ziploc bags for gloves when handling videotapes from the store. (And for good reason.) Ritter's character has a history of drug abuse and seems to be living in his car. But Palka doesn't dwell on what happened to them before they meet (the movie's falsest note, in fact, comes when she confronts the source of her affliction directly). Instead, she trains a gimlet eye on the mating rituals of very depressed people. The boy's first big move on the girl is asking if he can pick up the trash strewn all over her apartment. His second move is washing her hair. Both come across as surprisingly tender, even sensual acts.
Perverse as it seems on description, there's something joyful, romantic and genuinely sexy about "Good Dick." By focusing on the psychological and emotional factors that inexplicably draw people together instead of on the more compulsive physical triggers, the movie delves into the labyrinthine nature of human attraction and rediscovers the human part. Palka unexpectedly electrifies a genre as tired as the sex tapes her character watches miserably every night. In the era of "Girls Gone Wild" and Internet pornography, the fact that Palka's character is addicted to watching dated dirty movies on VHS can seem somewhat affected, but her arcane tastes in pornography are romantic compared with contemporary tastes and hint at the sexual alienation that currently afflicts the culture. Sex, the movie suggests, has been thoroughly unsexed by vulgarity, anonymity and soullessness. What is needed again is mystery.
For a certain audience tired of Barbies in the role of everygirl, Palka's depressed, angry character will feel like a breath of fresh (though possibly slightly gamy) air, but it's Ritter who steals the show. There's something uncommonly soulful about his homeless video store clerk cum white knight, just as there's something wonderfully hopeful about Palka's modest movie. In an early scene, she parks her car in front of a check-cashing place next door to the video store that promises "instant approval." That she gets it might have come off as a fairy tale. But that we buy it is a testament to the authenticity of the performances.
"Good Dick." MPAA rating: R for sexual context and language. Running time: 1 hour and 26 minutes. In limited release.