If filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass had been a little more careful with the plotting, The Puffy Chair would have been excellent. Unfortunately, it makes the mistake a lot of tiny films make in neglecting story, resulting in a few dull stretches and a lack of dramatic tension. Still, the character interactions are strong enough to stick with you for days.
The film starts with Josh (played by Mark Duplass, the film's writer) and his girlfriend, Emily (Kathryn Aselton, who was first runner-up for Miss Teen USA in 1995), having a late-night meal. They begin to talk in the kind of goofy voices that couples sometimes use, but which are never well represented on screen. It's charmingly embarrassing to listen to what they call their "schmoopie talk," and the acting is so natural that it appears artificial.
In most films, actors seem smooth even when they're appearing clumsy. The studied control of acting is such that it makes human activity seem rehearsed and scripted. But Duplass and Aselton go a step further and capture the actual artificiality of real conversation. They seem like people who are trying to have a conversation without any concern for what an audience would think of it, which makes the scene grotesquely cute and weirdly voyeuristic.
Josh is a booking agent who has a slick way with people but is incapable of deeply connecting. Emily would be a parody of the needy, clingy, pouty young woman if she wasn't played so convincingly. When Josh takes a phone call in the middle of their cooing, Emily storms out in a huff.
This leads Josh to do exactly what he didn't want to do: He takes Emily on a road trip to see his father. On the way, they're to stop and pick up a replica of the recliner that Josh's dad owned years earlier.
That's pretty much the plot of The Puffy Chair: It's your basic boy-meets-chair, boy-loses-chair story, with a sprinkling of arson and schmooping.
The best stuff comes from Rhett Wilkins as Josh's angel-headed brother, Rhett. On the way south, Josh and Emily stop at Rhett's place to find him filming lizards and making starry-eyed pronouncements about things like feelings and love and pizza. Rhett's the kind of guy who talks about "bad energy" infesting a van. He cuts his hair short but grows his beard long. He says of his father, "The old man has never sat and watched a lizard. The lizard is life, man!"
Josh fancies himself a grown-up, but Emily and Rhett are like the children of the pets of hippies. They're all about love and feelings and having the worldview of newborn kittens on psilocybin. This puts Josh in the self-appointed position of "leading" the trip, and creates most of the tension in the film.
Since the plot is thin, the script tries to stretch it out with a few odd encounters south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Unfortunately, these seem contrived, especially a sequence where Rhett tries to condense a 20-year romantic relationship into a single night.
I think the film would work better if it had a stronger narrative arc. In the list of great story archetypes, Man vs. Chair Dealer has always taken a backseat to Man vs. Man and Man vs. Donald Rumsfeld. Still, the performances and dialogue create a certain enchantment even when the film seems like it's going nowhere.
Enhancing this is a documentary style of cinematography. In one tense scene, Josh fights with Emily, but the camera, instead of cutting back and forth between them, swings back and forth. We're so used to cutting in a conversation that we don't even notice it, but it's an incredibly artificial technique. The swinging, which is more like the movement of our eyes and heads, is jarring, and adds to the sense that we're actually watching an awkward moment that we're simply not meant to see.
In the end, I think The Puffy Chair's audience is limited. While it partakes of some art-film techniques, it's not truly experimental enough to qualify as an art film. And its failure to develop a strong narrative, and the padding needed to get it to feature length, keep it from being a successful romance. But the way that the cinematography comments on the story, and the strength of the performances and dialogue, are certainly laudatory, as are its revelations about those aspects of young love that we've all engaged in when we hoped no one was watching.