Matt Sauter’s directorial debut elegantly captures the multitude of ways that sexual abuse survivors try to cope.
“Dylan & Zoey” begins with two quintessential Los Angeles experiences: two friends realizing they’ve lost touch and a party that someone desperately wants to skip. Dylan (Blake Scott Lewis) and Zoey (Claudia Doumit) were best friends in high school, but now they barely speak. She moved to Denver to pursue a journalism career; he’s still figuring things out in California. Both are aware that they’re dangerously close to becoming acquaintances who only text each other “happy birthday.”
Hoping to avoid such a dreadful fate, Zoey reaches out to Dylan when she travels to L.A. for a bachelorette party that she has zero interest in attending. With one night left on her trip, the two friends meet at Dylan’s house in an attempt to reconnect. But something has clearly changed between them. They can still make each other laugh, but all the lost time has created a tension that’s impossible to ignore.
It doesn’t help that Zoey begins by asking Dylan if he has lost his virginity yet, a question that the 28-year-old is ashamed to answer. Almost immediately, we learn that Dylan is a lifelong virgin due in part to sexual abuse that he experienced as a child. The topic is familiar enough to Zoey that Dylan feels comfortable cracking jokes about the fact that his cousin molested him when he was two years old, but it’s clear that his childhood experiences have burdened him with a crippling anxiety that has made it impossible to start his life.
Zoey thinks she can help with that. Determined to get her friend out of his shell and rekindle their friendship, she takes him out to a bar, which quickly turns into another bar, which turns into an all-night odyssey through the streets of L.A. as the duo tries to move past their trauma while talking about anything and everything.
The trope of a young guy and a young girl spending a night wandering through a city and talking is a time-tested indie film staple. Those films often succeed by encapsulating the magical feeling of being young and having your entire life ahead of you. But “Dylan & Zoey” is about two 20-somethings who firmly believe their lives are behind them. It still has moments of the crackling banter you find in “Before Sunrise,” but these characters have both given up. The only question is whether they know it or not.
The film deserves credit for its nuanced exploration of sexual trauma, showing us characters who are both burdened by it yet seem to adjust their coping mechanisms by the minute. They shift from jocularity to anger to morose at a rapid pace, but as the film goes on, we come to understand that abuse has molded these people in a way that is impossible to reverse.
Neither Dylan nor Zoey is a groundbreaking movie character, but Lewis and Doumit both do an excellent job of embodying the kinds of anxiety-ridden, wisecracking former gifted kids that every Los Angeles resident has encountered at some point. The film may be light on quotable lines or iconic scenes, but writer/director Matt Sauter does an excellent job of crafting a series of exchanges that genuinely feel like they could be happening at a bar in Silver Lake on any given night. It’s a low-stakes affair, but that gives the film an authenticity that so many comparable indie films lack.
As Dylan and Zoey dig deeper in their quest to figure out why their friendship fizzled out, they realize how much work they both have to do on themselves to craft some semblance of a normal life. But the increasingly painful conversations lead them to the cliched truth that they’re better equipped to deal with those problems together than they would be alone.
Sauter’s film is a reminder of how sexual abuse survivors can be haunted by trauma that lasts a lifetime, but it finds its emotional core in the revelation that, if you’re lucky, the friendships that get you through this life can last just as long.
Gravitas Ventures will release “Dylan & Zoey” in select theaters and on VOD Friday, November 11.
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