With its tale of a hyper-articulate twentysomething at a crossroads in life being forced to work for a day as a lowly salesperson, Jay Gammill’s debut feature Free Samples plays an awful lot like a female-centric version of Kevin Smith’s seminal indie hit Clerks.
Jess Weixler stars as Jillian, a harshly sardonic, overeducated law-school dropout who must spend a hungover day working in an ice-cream truck that prominently displays a sign giving the film its title. She passes the shift firing off witheringly dismissive abuse at the many customers who demand their free treats, trying to sort out the seemingly unhealthy relationship she has with her current boyfriend, and fending off the advances of a potential new beau named Tex (Jesse Eisenberg) -- and yes, having the decidedly uncowboy-like Eisenberg play a man named Tex is one of the funniest jokes in the movie.
Weixler is fairly impressive. She’s in every scene of the film, and while she never shies away from making Jillian as unlikable as possible, we never turn on her completely. By the end, the movie displays a little bit of heart, and it’s rather amazing we still want things to work out for a person so purposefully unpleasant. Jim Beggarly’s script doesn’t break any new ground, and his one-liners aren’t as instantly quotable as Smith’s, but he does treat his characters with respect -- as shown late in the picture in a wonderful cameo by Tippi Hedren as an elderly customer who finally breaks through Jillian’s wall of cynicism -- even when the protagonist doesn’t have respect for anybody.
The acting is solid all around. In addition to Weixler and Hedren, Jason Ritter has an amusing scene as a friend who ends up being pressed into service behind the counter of the ice-cream truck while pantsless, and Eisenberg is genuinely charming as Tex. His three scenes with Weixler are interesting because she is playing the part we generally associate with Eisenberg -- the smugly superior know-it-all -- while he gets to be a nice, normal guy.
Free Samples is a lo-fi film all the way. It looks like it was made as inexpensively as possible, but the scale of the story fits the low-budget vibe perfectly. It’s a minor movie that showcases a talented young actress, and proves Gammill is good enough with actors that he should get a shot at bigger stars and bigger budgets if he wants them. leave a comment --Perry Seibert