“Charlie’s Party” (2005)

charliespartyThose who like their group sex comedies on the neurotic side (with more stewing than screwing) might want to check out “Charlie’s Party,”  the small 2005 comedy directed by Catherine Cahn and produced by “The Station Agent” producer Barry Sisson. Think of it as a “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” for uptight East Coast Gen Nexters, who obsess about sex but spend little time doing it.

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The titular character (Alissia Miller, above) is a narcissistic, past-her-prime actress. Charlie is soon turning 30, and she’s bitter about losing her starring TV role to the younger Zoe (Kim Director), who at one point slept with her New Age-y stud boyfriend Dylan (Chris Tardio). She decides to throw a “cell swap” birthday party, in the vein of key exchange orgies thrown in the 1970s. But times have changed, and her friends and other invitees are a hesitant, fumbling bunch.

The guests:  shy klutz Nick (Eron Otcasek, the biggest charmer here), who had a crush on Charlie in college (she makes fun of his flannel shirt-wearing, Beastie Boys-loving style back in the day); angry lesbian Jane (Nancy Anne Ridder), who also lusted after Charlie; yuppie Tom (Mark H. Dold) and his mousy, stuffy wife Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd, of “Numb3rs” and “Sports Night” fame); and, unexpectedly, Zoe, who turns out to be the most adventurous participant.

Predictably, the party starts off disastrously, with all the perverted secret fantasies and betrayals and jealousies brought to the surface. More and more it becomes clear that the party was thrown for entirely selfish purposes, so that a) Charlie could pitch a sitcom idea to Zoe and b) Charlie could ease her feelings of sexual inadequacy.

What’s pleasant about the film is that, due to the brutally exposing nature of this party, the modest, gentle characters find an outlet in which to blossom and the forthright, hectoring characters get their much needed comeuppance. Charlie and Tom are unlikable, Type-A malcontents who fancy themselves metrosexuals, so it’s only natural that they are paired up and that the circumstances are ugly.

“Charlie’s Party” could stand to be a bit more erotic (even the three-way assignation is rather tame), and the dialogue, while witty, isn’t as tart-tongued as it could be. But this is a clever film about the pros and cons of capricious quarter-life-crisis sexual expression, and it never judges its characters in a puritan way. It certainly deserves a more widespread/Netflix DVD release, but sadly I was only able to get my DVD copy directly from Sisson.

Cahn came up with the idea after jokingly suggesting a similar party for herself and her friends. While it never happened, her friends (and husband Andrew’s) reactions to the concept inspired the screenplay for “Charlie’s Party.” “I was more interested in why people would do it and whether there could be good to come from extra-relationship sex,” Cahn told eFilmCritic in 2005, when the film premiered at the CineVegas festival. “I also was interested in how our sexual insecurities perhaps reflect what we see as our shortcomings in regular life.”

Cahn, who’d previously worked in law and finance, linked up with her friend’s husband, “Charlie’s Party” co-producer Marc Lieberman, a friend of Sisson’s.  The three worked out a small budget and Cahn then raised money from relatives and friends. A UK native, she moved with Andrew to New York for several months to shoot and edit “Charlie’s Party,” which was predominantly filmed at a friend’s house in Connecticut. The overall budget, Cahn told me earlier this week over the phone, was around $150,000.

Sisson and Lieberman then launched Cavalier Films (now defunct), which was able to get “Charlie’s Party” into festivals in Las Vegas (where it received the highest Audience Award rating), Washington, D.C., Virginia and London in mid-2005. A larger distribution deal with Sibling Rivalry Entertainment (also defunct now, or at least inactive) was imminent but never realized. The film did play in a few East Coast theaters, and was met with generally unenthusiastic reviews from The Washington Post and Variety.

“At a festival, things can be well-received, there can be a buzz behind it and an energy, but then in the cold light of day, when you’re figuring out how to actually make money, it’s not always as easy,” Cahn recalled. “Had Cameron Diaz been in the main role, it might have been different, or had the movie been slightly better. We could have done things differently in the film to sort of give it that edge. It’s tough to make a small budget film with no one known in it and have it become a big hit. It happens rarely.”

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Still, Cahn (above, left)  is happy with the overall experience, her bonding with the cast and the life lessons she learned. “The cast was all working for not much money. There wasn’t the same kind of hierarchy that you find on film sets. It was a communal feel because everyone was pitching in.”

Another nice outcome:  two couples from the set got married. Nancy Anne Ridder married the boom operator, who was also a jazz pianist, and the first assistant director married the head of wardrobe.

After “Charlie’s Party,” Cahn, now back in England, advised media companies and did production work for an animation series called “Freefonix.” It was through the latter job that she connected with her current employer, with whom she launched the educational film company Twig World. The company uses archival footage from the BBC and adds its own music and voice-overs, then sends the finished films to middle and elementary schools all over the world. Cahn anticipates that Twig World will become cash flow positive in the second or third quarter of this year, and that she will be at this job for another five to seven years. At that point, she said,  she would like to return to screenwriting.

Cahn, who now lives in Glasgow with Andrew and her two children (aged one and three), has an animation film in her head that she will one day develop. “It’s set in Georgian England, and it’s about the adventures of a little stowaway boy and a monkey who are brought to England to be part of the king’s palace. It turns out that the little boy is the young Dr. Doolittle.”

“It’s a good thing, but give me a few years,” she added. “Running this company and having two children means I have, like, zero time. I barely get time to watch a single hour of television!”

A decade after “Charlie’s Party” first materialized, Cahn’s take on extramarital dalliances is mostly unchanged.

“Sometimes people put too much pressure on there being absolute monogamy in a marriage for its full forty or fifty-year course,” she said. “Having said that, I am not currently involved in any kind of swinging activities. I am happily married and totally monogamous, so I guess I’m not practicing what I’m preaching!”

As for Sisson, he now runs a radio program, Indie Film Minute, which broadcasts short film reviews on radio stations nationwide. He should talk about “Charlie’s Party!”

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