‘Life in Color’
Katherine Emmer
Stars: Katharine Emmer, Josh McDermitt
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

As Mary, the depressed nanny of “Life in Color,” Katharine Emmer has the deadpan monotone of Thora Birch in “Ghost World” or classic Christina Ricci. We might mistake it for shtick, and may even think the film is merely a grouchy comedy, if one that’s sharp and enjoyably down. Like a lot of indies, “Life in Color” — which Emmer also wrote, directed, produced and edited — eventually turns out to be a drama. What it avoids is the sloppiness that often makes mid-film tonal shifts seem calculated and jarring. It slowly, nimbly reveals its depth of feeling, even if its final stretch can sometimes feel stock.

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But it’s first and for awhile foremost a comedy. While stationed at a lavish suburban manse, Mary meets-cute with Homer (“The Walking Dead”’s Josh McDermitt), a slovenly slacker who aspires to stand-up but has settled for being an unloved birthday clown. They share a J during his latest gig; she’s promptly busted by her employers and sent packing. Guilt-ridden, Homer offers her a couch — not his, but the one in the swank apartment he’s house-sitting. Jobless and largely free of ambition, Mary and Homer enter into wobbly co-existence, trying to live off failed get-rich-quick schemes, gaming systems and trying to survive. Their biggest score involves finally grooming Homer into a comic who can win at a forthcoming contest, but even then motivation doesn’t come easily.

It’s inevitable that their bickering beginnings will soften into something like affection — and maybe love? — but when the serious side comes it doesn’t feel cheap. Both our heroes use weary sarcasm (her) and prodigious couch-surfing (him) to stave off their real problems, and when they finally open up about real hurt it’s not a twist but an explanation for their behavior. We might groan as they start swapping sad backstories, even after Mary has made a joke about doing just that. But their histories deepen the film without coming off mawkish. It shows that eveything we've watched has been serious all along. As the story trods along, Emmer slowly allows her cadences to become more animated, if only sporadically gleeful, while Homer’s growing confidence comes slowly but surely. They feel like amusing caricatures who gradually realize they’re human.

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“Life in Color” shores up a lot of goodwill, which comes in handy when the third veers into the usual break-up followed by a semi-improbable triumph followed by a heartfelt reunion. The predictability and devotion to shopworn indie tropes doesn’t ruin the mordant-yet-sensitive vibe it’s established. As a director and editor, Emmer allows her shots to play out with deceptive plainness, holding a beat or two too long to simulate the character’s feelings of being stuck in emotional quicksand. Their pain is funny for awhile, but once “Life in Color” wants to get real it doesn’t feel insincere. It just makes sense.

"Life in Color" is now available on iTunes and Amazon.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge