The Tribeca Film Festival entry “Slow Learners,” co-directed by real-life partners Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, is an amusing comedy full of deadpan humor, verbal gymnastics, and manic antics. Jeff (Adam Pally), is a guidance counselor, and Anne (Sarah Burns) is a librarian at a Media, PA high school. These friends are hoping to jump start their lack of a love life by changing their personalities. Metro chatted with the Argott — previously known for documentaries such as “Rock School” and “The Art of the Steal,” both Philadelphia-centric — and Joyce about love, life, and making “Slow Learners.”
Were you a slow learner?
Don Argott: [Laughs] Why would you say that?
Sheena M. Joyce: [Laughs] I would never willingly call myself that. But all of us are Slow Learners when it comes to some aspect of our lives. Don and I were friends for 4 ½ years before we started dating. Then it took us almost 6 years to get engaged, and we have been engaged for almost 8 years.
Argott: I guess we are. And we have a kid too.
This film is your first cinematic foray into fictional storytelling. How did you approach the material?
Joyce: We wanted to make sure this film was grounded in reality. So we put our documentary skills to use. What was crazy on page became real on screen.
Argott: I was raised on John Hughes films from the ’80s. Even though we were working in narrative space, we keep it as honest and real as we could. We wanted to finds amazing comedic improvisational actors who could help shape material…
Joyce: …And make it their own. They had freedom to bring whatever they wanted to the character. A crew member said he knew we were from the doc world because we would ask the actors questions: “What would Anne do?” Part of the challenge and fun was to see how off kilter we can get and then reign it back in.
The characters seem desperate for romance. What tips can you offer? Sheena: Whatever we say will sound cliche. I want someone who is genuine, not putting on airs, or be someone else. That’s a hard lesson for Jeff and Anne to learn.
Argott: The best moment with any partner is when you have your guard down and are not trying to put on a “face.” They are the most intimate and honest and vulnerable. When you find someone you can be vulnerable with, that’s the best part of a relationship.
Joyce: I think the core is being good friends.
Argott: You nailed that one.
Jeff and Anne want to “live cool.” How do you “live cool?”
Joyce: I don’t live cool. No way. Does that make me cool that I don’t think I’m cool? I skew nerdy. He’s super cool.
Argott: [Laughs] I’m a heavy metal kid from NJ. But that’s an outsider. But that’s what our characters are. They are on the fringe.
I like that “Slow Learners” is not about sophisticated city slickers. The film was shot in Media. What can you say about this environment and how it reflects the characters and the audience?
Joyce: That was my hometown, my life, that suburban existence. I think a lot of people see “Sex and the City,” a glamorized version of their grown-up dating lives. Most people who live in New York don’t have a “Sex and the City” lifestyle.
Argott: I grew up in the ‘burbs, but setting the film in the ‘burbs gave it realism about why they might be so unlucky in love. They are a little sheltered—not unsophisticated, but perhaps clueless. This makes it believable. You can’t be 30 and supercool so they had to be in a school environment, where you are exposed to bad language and adolescence. That’s your world. It’s limited. That made the characters believable.
“Slow Learners” screens throughout the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit its TFF page for details.