Written, directed and produced by Shannon Alexander (The Misguided, 2018), who evidently also shoots most of the footage not filmed by his subjects on their own smartphones, Sex, Love, Misery: New New York is a do-it-yourself documentary on dating. Alexander follows six people – Aisha Kerensa (who also composed and performed the score), Emile Filippi, Camila Allison, Troy Weekes, Izzie Zuniga and Jack Terzi – before and after assignations, and uses their differences (in age, sex, education and provenance, in ethnic and social background, etc.) to reflect the special status of the metropolis as a melting-pot which attracts folk from all over.
Diversity is key here, as these six try – and mostly fail – to find ‘the one’ e pluribus, and struggle to see their varied, often conflicting hopes satisfied (“I dunno, is that too much to ask?” wonders Camila aloud after listing a long menu of virtues she expects from her partner). By introducing us to these would-be lovers at first in superficial snatches, and then with a greater focus that lets both their qualities and flaws emerge more clearly, Sex, Love, Misery: New New York mimics the form of an actual date, with initial impressions and posturing profiles soon giving way to warts-and-all truths. These people seem different in the end from how they did at the start.
Shooting in a snowy winter, Alexander encourages his interviewees to open up about their desires, ambitions and dreams, as well as their aversions, dislikes and disappointments as they also discuss their experience with past relationships. The three dates themselves that form the film’s core in the present are in fact not shown, but rather used as talking points: the excitement and anxiety in anticipation of the event, and the comedown afterwards. The interviews can be disarmingly frank, even brutal – about ghosting, sex, marriage, self-esteem, STDs (a topic amplified by the pandemic setting) – all delivered with an element of confessional familiar from reality television. There is also the irony (produced through editing) of seeing gross inconsistencies in the different partners’ accounts of how their meeting went.
Although there is much talk about the etiquette of Tinder and online hook-ups, in fact it is Alexander himself rather than an algorithm playing yenta here, and bringing these subjects together in their most plausible-seeming pairings. Indeed it might be concluded that the disaster here is not the general travails of courtship, but rather the filmmaker’s skills in matchmaking – except that one can see exactly why he makes these particular pairings (and why they could work), even as one hears about this sextet’s previous, similarly far from ideal experiences in dating from long before Alexander began documenting their lives.
Sex, Love, Misery: New New York is a charming, dispiriting look at the difficult dating scene in the Big City. If it has a failing, that would be its shapelessness and lack of closure. It ends when the final credits roll, but it might just as easily have finished 20 minutes earlier or an hour later. Perhaps that very incompleteness is part of its message, as these dreamers, in search of their romantic ideal, are confronted with a reality that is, inevitably, always less than perfect.
strap: Shannon Alexander’s documentary tracks the dating rituals of six different people in New York City
© Anton Bitel