Two gay men navigate the challenges of a smartphone era relationship in “Sell By,” writer-director Mike Doyle’s debut feature film that aims to push the boundaries of the romantic comedy genre by avoiding its tropes.
The movie, which premiered at Toronto’s Inside Out Festival in May and will be screened at Outfest Los Angeles this weekend, is a star-studded ensemble piece about the lives (and loves) of seven career-driven pals in New York. At the core of this Manhattan friendship circle are Adam (played by Scott Evans) and Marklin (Augustus Prew), who have been together for five years.
Though Adam dreams of making a name for himself in the visual art world, he’s settled for a “ghost painting” gig with established artist Ravella Brewer (Patricia Clarkson), who passes his work off as hers.
Meanwhile, Marklin has shot to internet fame as an Instagram influencer and ― much to Adam’s chagrin ― has outpaced his boyfriend’s modest salary through sponsors and partnership deals. Beneath the photo filters, however, Marklin is dealing with deep pain of his own: Unbeknownst to his thousands of followers and his boyfriend, he’s been caring for an ex-partner dying of a terminal illness.
Adam and Marklin find solace in Adam’s sister, Elizabeth (Kate Walsh), and brother-in-law, Damon (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), as well as their pals Cammy (Michelle Buteau), Henry (Colin Donnell) and Haley (Zoë Chao). As it turns out, each of these characters also feel like they’re spinning their wheels in professional and emotional realms of their lives.
Doyle, who is an actor currently seen on Showtime’s “City on a Hill,” told HuffPost he wanted to create a film that would emphasize the similarities between its straight and gay characters as opposed to their differences. In doing so, he hoped to portray “the universality of the challenges of being in a relationship with another human being,” regardless of sexuality or gender identity.
“There have been so many great films about coming out [and] battling adversity,” said Doyle, citing Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach and Leslye Headland as cinematic influences. “I wanted to make a film that presupposed all of that and simply showed a gay couple in a relationship with one another.”
The writer-director had only one casting stipulation — that Adam and Marklin be played by actors who identify as gay. “Much progress has been made in casting, yet having out leads is still considered bold,” said Doyle, who is gay himself. “It shouldn’t be.”
Fortunately, he succeeded. Both Scott Evans ― the younger brother of “Captain America” star Chris Evans ― and Augustus Prew have drawn from their authentic selves numerous times in their onscreen work. Prew in particular made a splash earlier this year on Netflix’s “Special,” as a love interest for protagonist Ryan Hayes (Ryan O’Connell).
True to its rom-com origins, “Sell By” is a thoroughly optimistic piece. In striving for realism, however, Doyle opted to leave some plot points open-ended. The film’s conclusion, for instance, seems to invite the audience to decide for themselves whether or not Adam and Marklin got what they wanted (or deserved).
“I gravitate toward films that don’t spoon-feed everything to the audience [and] feel like giant puzzles with a patchwork of different voices, conflicts and desires,” Doyle said. “I’ve written a film that has a lot of talking, but I’ve intentionally left enough holes so that the audience can fill in some of the blanks on their own.”
“My hope is that the audience feels like they are the eighth friend in this friend circle,” he added.
“Sell By” will screen at Outfest on July 20 and 21.