When I first read the synopsis for Zoe Lister-Jones’ hilarious and achingly real directorial debut, Band Aid – “a struggling married couple turns their fights into songs and start a band” – I wondered how this musical journey would present itself. I expected something slightly awkward, a therapist tossing it out there it as a random, whimsical suggestion that somehow stuck. But I got something different, and far more honest.
Ben (Adam Pally) and Ann (Lister-Jones) have gone from an argument at home to couples therapy to a birthday party full of kids. They sneak off together only to have another argument. So they come back to the party. They pick up the nearby toy instruments. They start jamming while the toddlers crawl around them. Their made-up song is melodic and pretty, even if it’s about their fighting. It’s a silly moment, a release they so desperately need that leads to a realization they later stumble into: they had fun, and they should start a band and sing about more of these fights.
That something so random could come across so organically is a testament to Lister-Jones’ talents behind and in front of the camera, and to how incredible her and Adam Pally are at creating these very vibrant, relatable characters. They are given space throughout the film, to pause, to reflect, to despair, to do all the human things we can all relate to. They never once feel like anything less than totally real people.
Too often in relationship comedies we only get one side of the equation; we either get a couple that appears so great together that their problems feel rather lame and contrived, or they’re so miserable that we never understand why they’re together in the first place. A balance should be struck so that we, as an audience, have not just an interest in what happens to them, but so there’s also room for us to empathize with whatever decision they make. At that point, the only ending we can ask for is an honest one.
Along the way, Lister-Jones gives us several situations in which Anna and Ben are so close to making something beautiful, but they can’t quite get there. Something always goes awry. At one point the two of them go the beach and get high on mushrooms, thinking it will help their creative process. What results is Ben thinking of the most incredible song ever, which he desperately needs to get on paper before it disappears forever, only for Ann to provide him a sandwich to write his notes on. It’s agonizing to watch because they both look so happy (even if it’s drug-assisted), and yet they’re never quite able to carry that happiness over into a real life situation.
In between all of this, this movie is incredibly, bracingly funny. It never hurts to have Fred Armisen in your movie playing a weirdo, awkward character like he does so expertly, but Lister-Jones makes the comedy hit even harder with some sharp character-based laughs. I’ve always been a believer that a sharp tension between comedy and tragedy, between laughs and pathos, makes the flavors pop even more. Lister-Jones takes that dynamic and runs it throughout the entire film, making it as honest and enjoyable a movie as I’ve seen in a long time.
This is the first time I’ve posted about a movie in nearly 8 months. I’ve certainly seen many movies in that time. Some, like Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (an excellent double-feature with Band Aid), are still stuck in my brain, while many others have slowly slid out. It’s all become something of a blur. It all becomes visual noise in search of a signal. It’s like listening to a steadily-strummed, slightly drowsy acoustic guitar, and Band Aid is that moment when it’s suddenly plugged into an amp. It feels electric. It feels different. It feels alive.
At times I felt like characters were talking to me and pointing out my own flaws directly. Arguments sometimes sounded all too real. But it all felt honest, like Lister-Jones and her team were adamant about going past the interchangeable relationship details and diving deep into the why of how people like Anna and Ben could become so stuck. That it can do all this heavy lifting without breaking a sweat and being as funny as it is makes it something truly impressive. And the tunes. Man, the tunes are sweet.
When Ann and Ben create their songs together, you can feel the electricity, and it’s not just from their instruments. There’s something chemical and hard to replicate. They’re getting high off of each other and, as an audience, it’s hard not to get high off their improvised musical collaboration. It’s an electric feeling, the way it all combines into a greater whole, in which pain and frustration has a beautiful, cathartic release.
But then the moment’s over and it is so hard for them to replicate that feeling in the everyday life they live. They are constantly chasing moments, many of which only work when they happen organically. The few times Anna and Ben try to create a moment and force it into happening – like when they try to go ahead with their debut performance without a drummer to back them up, or when they do mushrooms to help their creative process – it comes completely undone and feels all the more crushing.
Towards the end of Band Aid, Ann and Ben have an absolutely brutal fight in which they both say things we’re not sure they’ll ever be able to move past. There is serious doubt of this relationship continuing, and it’s made all the more relatable by how carefully Lister-Jones paints their relationship and all its different shades. No punches are pulled. No emotional stones left unturned.
When we last see Ann and Ben, they’re motivated to move past about just singing about their arguments and want to think about writing a love song. But they’re both just so baffled at the idea of something so hard to wrap their arms around. They’re interrupted by the steady drip of a new leak in the house. At that point, the suggestion is clear: they’ll always have something to fix; but they’ve made a choice to do it together. It’s love. And for now, it’s all they need.