Expired, the first feature film from writer-director Cecilia Miniucchi, is a precarious prospect. A bittersweet romance (emphasis on bitter) about the awkward mating dance between two parking attendants, one fears the director will serve up yet another self-consciously quirky indie about emotionally stunted grownups who take those first reluctant steps towards adulthood after finding love. But Miniucchi thankfully gives us something more surprising. Owing largely to her delicate writing and to her idiosyncratic cast, Expired sneaks up on you even after you’ve left the theater.
Claire (Samantha Morton) is that rare specimen: a parking official you’d actually want to encounter. A guileless people-pleaser, she’s endlessly helpful, aiding women with heavy loads into their cars and sparing drivers who ask if they can dash into stores at Christmastime without paying. Her colleague Jay (Jason Patric) takes the opposite tack, antagonizing nearly everyone he meets; after he tickets his estranged son, the son sighs, “Finally, my Christmas present from you.” When Jay notices Claire, we wince for her, so toxic does this pairing seem.
The two strike up a comically awful romance, replete with awkward sex scenes and pathetically crossed purposes. Miniucchi riffs on the idioms of abusive love, as Jay preys on Claire’s relentless sincerity. “I’ll probably call you,” he tells her nonchalantly after their first date; when she greets him eagerly at her door another night, he admonishes, “Lower your voice.” But Jay also senses that he doesn’t deserve Claire, throwing her a crumb when he calls her “my biggest and only fan.” And though you sometimes want to shake sense into her, we can understand why the mousy Claire is drawn to Jay’s straightforward masculinity.
The coupling might be merely repugnant if not for Morton and Patric. With her childlike features, Morton excels with characters that seemed to have missed out on a crucial phase of development (Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report). She delivers her lines here with breathy earnestness, so that Claire sounds like she’s always apologizing; you can practically hear a lump in her throat. And the excellent Patric makes you wish directors would turn to him more often. Playing a more low-key variation of his monstrous alpha male from Your Friends & Neighbors, the actor pulls off a tricky balancing act: we look forward to Jay’s cutting rebukes even as we brace ourselves on Claire’s behalf.
Miniucchi doesn’t completely sidestep the pitfalls of her film’s precious premise. She relies too heavily on kitschy props to telegraph Claire’s awkwardness (such as when Claire gives Jay a pepper shaker for Christmas) and she saddles some characters with cutesy tics (Claire’s ailing mother can’t speak). The sharp supporting players, including Ileana Douglas as Claire’s straight-talking friend and Teri Garr in dual roles as Claire’s mute mother and garish aunt, don’t have enough to do (the brilliant Garr manages to steal a couple of scenes even without dialogue). But despite the occasional missteps, Miniucchi’s offbeat vision is unexpectedly moving.
We wonder where this oddball duet can lead, but the director eschews any rote payoffs. Jay’s heart doesn’t so much melt as it does thaw incrementally, and when Claire finally grows a spine, her epiphany comes with a painful price. Far from blooming under each other’s gaze, these two sorry souls may be worse off for meeting each other. But viewing them at a safe fictional remove, we’re glad they do.