THE BLOG
12/01/2014 12:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Devil You Know

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When we first meet Frannie, the protagonist of writer-director Liz Tuccillo's debut feature, Take Care, she's fresh from the hospital, arm in a sling, leg in a brace, being wrangled from a cab by her sister and a friend. As they confront the challenge of how to get her into her walk-up apartment, Frannie's least favorite neighbor passes on his way to work. Although he makes the exact opposite of an offer to help, before long he is hauling Frannie up four flights on his back.

Family and friends initially pitch in to tend to her, but in our ADHD world, Frannie isn't anyone's priority. Nor is she in any mood, as she battles constant pain and the indignity of helplessness, to hear her neighbor explain why people can't really be there: "They want to go to the movies or they want to go out to eat...Everyone's just trying to squeeze out a little happiness in life, and the last thing they want is someone getting in their way." He speaks from personal experience: "When someone asks me to do them a favor, it feels like they're literally sucking the air out of my lungs."

One night on (drug-fueled) impulse Frannie reaches out to the last person she should be in contact with, the ex she and her friends refer to as "The Devil" for something he did in their past. He surprises them both by agreeing to meet, and their awkward encounter promises to be the end of things. Then he tosses out a thoughtless "Call me if you need anything" and Frannie's head explodes, harsh truths and unexpected demands bursting out. Before we know it, the Devil (real name: Devon) has agreed to be her daily caretaker. Devon has a girlfriend of two years and a recent $6 million payday for selling an app to Yahoo!, but he's soon putting his life on hold to be nursemaid, companion and cook, in a setup worthy of Almódovar, to a woman whose primary emotion is rage. The unpacking of Frannie and Devon's fraught history, subtly and believably etched, expands the absurdist romp into an affecting love story.

Take Care grows richer as it explores the perversity of intimacy halted and weirdly reborn. Devon's breach, we soon learn, is the kind of moral crime that usually relegates someone to the status of villain. No one is either purely villain or saint in Take Care, though: not Michael Stahl-David's blunt neighbor, who needs to work out "like an animal" to cope with neurotic family and work stress; not Leslie Bibb's brittle Frannie, as far from a good sport as can be in the film's early scenes; and especially not Thomas Sadoski's nuanced Devon, the tortured heart of the film, navigating his conflicted feelings as the surreal nature of his obligation begins to shift.

Tuccillo's characters are selfish and self-involved, funny, forthright -- messily human, even through the lens of caricature. The secondary cast is particularly well chosen: Nadia Dajani's micromanaging sister, who delegates humiliating tasks to a scene-stealing Tracee Chimo; Michael Godere's GBF, who brings an adorable trick, wise-gurl Kevin Curtis, along on nursemaid duty; and best of all, Betty Gilpin's girlfriend with jealousy issues, who turns hair-trigger sensitivity and off-kilter physicality to comedy gold.

For a movie hinged on emotional blackmail, Take Care has a surprisingly light touch. Tuccillo excels at calibrating the release of suppressed feelings of guilt, resentment and love, at mixing the shallow and the deep, at understating big truths. With expert timing she defuses moments that threaten to be "meaningful" by deftly cutting to the next beat.

The film dispenses with standard movie conventions; instead we experience mundane pleasures like bonding over TV, the shorthand that develops between people with a long history, how a one-word text can convey multitudes, the isolation and intermingling of strangers in the big city, the pull and torments of family. Tuccillo's characters also happily break the mold: The manufactured sins, jealousies and whiny guilt-inducing tropes that have long marred stereotypical boy-girl films are here replaced by the gallows humor of people trying to stay above water in the trenches of the modern world.

Take Care's unglamorous slice of life does have one fairy-tale aspect: Frannie faces down someone who has wronged her and gets not only acknowledgment but reparation for that betrayal -- a closure most of us only dream of. If the film's ending isn't quite as sharp as its title, it doesn't spoil the pleasures that precede it. Like another unexpectedly resonant and original pitch-black comedy, Ted Demme's The Ref, Take Care goes to extremes to get at subtle questions. It tricks us into falling in love with the facts of real life.