Bryan Poyser’s film Love & Air Sex does two things above all else; it encapsulates the pop culture experience of being in Austin, Texas, and it draws a neat, definite line between “love” and “Air Sex.” Big ol’ ampersand.
The first one sounds a little pretentious, but bear with me. This is a film about two people who were in love and now they aren’t, set in that weird, niche part of youth and society where pantomiming sex acts on stage to a cheering crowd is legitimate entertainment. I saw the film during a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse, the most “Austin” place in the world to watch movies, and saw a lot of my daily life on screen. The stereotypes of living here and being a twenty-(or thirty-)something white guy. Taco trucks. The Frost tower. People wearing ridiculous costumes for no reason. Weird for the sake of being weird. “Trying too hard” by accident. That’s us in a nutshell. I’ll put it to you this way — I had a friend from Canada visit recently, and the first thing we did when she touched down was hit up a vegan burger truck behind an LGBT-friendly open-air bar where we met a pig (an actual pig) with his own hashtag. It happens. We weren’t trying to be magical pixie snowflakes. The food’s just good and somebody had a pig.
The movie starts with one character in New York and another in Los Angeles, living complex, interesting lives, and then they both end up in Austin hanging out in cowboy bars with weird guys with weirder mustaches or watching their friend pretend to be a sexual Tyrannosaurus Rex. The main characters were here, left to pursue grown-up things, and came back to find themselves in the same simultaneously charming and asinine bullshit. Good or bad, that’s Austin in 2014. The place you have to be so you can get frustrated that other people want to be here.
Cathy (Ashley Bell) comes back to Austin to visit friends, and when her brokenhearted ex Stan (Michael Stahl-David, aka “the guy from Cloverfield“) finds out he books a flight to Austin so he can accidentally run into her. They find themselves a moment away from reconnecting for the entire film, wrapped around the recent breakup of their best friends Jeff (Zach Cregger, doing his best 1997 Jason Lee) and Kara (Sara Paxton plus temporary tattoos). Jeff plans to use a championship Air Sex run to forget her, and Kara’s been having Real Sex Championships with everyone she meets. Cathy and Stan end up meeting new love interests while wandering around Austin, and the “will they/won’t they” pull of a legitimately honest and endearing love story is the best part of the film.
That’s where the division between “love” and “Air Sex” becomes so important.
During a post-showing Q&A, Poyser and writer Steven Walters revealed that they’d set out to write an earnest, modern love story, and that Air Sex wasn’t a part of it until late in the game. I think that shows. The “love” portion of the film is outstanding. It shows a lot of little moments throughout the formation, confirmation and desecration of love that a lot of films don’t take the time to.
There are two great moments between Stan and Haley (Addison Timlin), a woman he meets and helps dig her phone out of the sewer in front of the (you guessed it) Alamo Drafthouse. They have a great, post-meeting flirty text exchange (expressed through texts popping up on the screen) that starts well and then goes full DICK PIX, a moment or true millennial awkwardness. The other is a moment that should be cliche — Stan goes to see Haley performing alt-cello to a crowd of zero and falls for her — that manages to cut through the pessimism and hit the sweet spot where you realize that life goes on and can get amazing, so you should probably cut it out with the “making yourself miserable” thing.
The core performances are all strong. Cregger and Paxton walk a fine line between being compelling seconds and being wacky caricatures, but they walk it deftly. By the end of the film you like them both, mostly because they’re allowed to occasionally go beyond the witty retorts and ridiculous situations and be fully-formed people … they have moments of regret, moments of sadness, successes and failures, and they never totally seem like Catwoman’s sassy friend from work. You know what I’m talking about.
For “Love,” I give the film an A. Love, to me, only exists when surrounded by insanity.
The “Air Sex” is a different story.
This is where the review stops being written by a literate fan of independent film and gets overrun by a nerdy asshole on the Internet. A normal, national audience is going to watch this film and get all the right emotions from watching an Air Sex competition. “It’s gross how they’re making sex gestures!” and “isn’t this weird!” being the two big ones. That should be enough to make them laugh. It made the audience I was watching with cackle. I am … not normal or national. Regular readers of UPROXX know that we’re intimately familiar with the workings of the Air Sex World Championships and have covered them regularly. I’ve judged five Air Sex competitions including one at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest back in 2012 and have a role (assuming I’m not left on the cutting room floor) in the upcoming Air Sex documentary. Hell, Chris Trew, the America’s Got Talent “Air Sexpert” and face of the sport, even writes for us occasionally.
So, remembering that I really did enjoy this movie, here are my two big Air Sex-centric gripes:
1. This Is Not Chris Trew
An Air Sex show isn’t an Air Sex show without Trew, but a scheduling conflict kept him from playing himself, so ersatz Trew here took over. It was … not the same. The essence of the Air Sex World Championships is that it’s a comedy show, so a normal Air Sex hosting gig consists of performing once, introducing folks, making a few jokes and keeping things loose. This guy played it like he was hosting VIDEO ARMAGEDDON in The Wizard, screaming everything with grand hand gestures and bug eyes, getting the crowd to chant YOU MUST FUCK THE AIR to demand satisfaction from its performers. Spoiler alert: that doesn’t happen.
Which brings us to the larger, actual gripe, which is …
2. The Air Sex Is Wildly Inaccurate
I’m not sure anybody in this movie has ever SEEN an Air Sex show. I mean, they say they have and they licensed the official logo and everything, but it feels more like they typed “air sex funny” into YouTube and approximated what they saw.
In real life, as I mentioned, Air Sex is a comedy show. It’s run in venues or bars full of happy, average folks holding drinks, watching people pretend to have sex with imaginary partners. When those people are done performing, they’re evaluated by three judges (who, it should be clarified, are also there to make jokes and are not sincerely judging them on anything). The judges put their favorite performers through to the next round, and the crowd decides the winner.
In Love & Air Sex, none of that happens. It’s a show run in a movie theater where the crowd doesn’t stop shouting YEAHH WOO YEAHHH and everybody’s dressed in funny costumes. There’s a guy in a banana suit, a guy in an Easter bunny costume, and so on. The performers get onto a tiny stage under a theater screen and do, well, something resembling Air Sex. Jeff pretends to be a dinosaur and sometimes moves things against his crotch, but mostly pretends to be a dinosaur. Maybe people pantomiming blowjobs would get the film a worse rating? There are no judges and the winner is determined more or less by the host going THIS GUY’S THE WINNER I GUESS, YEAHHH and raising his hand. The performers appear to have to pay to enter the contest. Everybody has obvious sex puns as their Air Sex handles, like “Hugh G. Rection” (shoutout to the Misfits In Action), a thing that happens, but not all the time. One of Austin’s recurring champs is just called “Secret Admirer,” for instance. Not COCKRET SQUIRTMIRER. Maybe this is a tribute to the archaic beginnings of the show or something, but yeah, no.
And that’s where the film leaves us. Love, and Air Sex. Two spectacularly different things.
I recommend you check this out if you get a chance. The film debuted during last year’s SXSW and is in the middle of a nationwide road trip to promote itself. If you’re not a guy going “Air Sex is the best” in 40 seconds of an upcoming documentary, you’ll find a lot to love. Deeply felt emotions, pantomimed handjobs, illogical depictions of Austinites flagrantly littering, a gorgeous woman on a cello, a guy pretending to blow himself and a tender story about getting your shit together and moving on.
Just mind the ampersand.