A dose of self-awareness goes a long way toward smoothing the edges of a first film, but Heather Graham’s Half Magic practically needs an emery cloth. Yet despite being awkwardly structured, erratically paced and syrupy enough to pour over pancakes, the movie has a consciousness that helps elide its flaws. The film seems personal for Graham, who serves as its star, director and writer. Either she’s feeling the same cultural shift in the entertainment industry as the rest of us, or she has a story to tell about her own experiences as a woman working in Hollywood, or both, and of these options the third seems most likely. Her earnestness doesn’t hide Half Magic’s imperfections, but it does ameliorate them.
Auxiliary sincerity at least gives us an angle for taking the film seriously, which leads to quite possibly its only point—women aren’t taken seriously in the movies. In this case, “the movies” are represented by dick-swinging misogynist egomaniacs running the studio system. Honey (Graham) works as assistant to Peter Brock (Chris D’Elia), a macho action star slash producer who refers to women as “sluts” more than he refers to them as, ya know, women. They’re also dating. The ultimate question is “why,” but we’ve been asking and answering that question in the press since last September, when The New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story and discourse about gender inequality gained volume. Graham doesn’t need to provide further explanation.
So instead she rushes through the dissatisfactions and ignominies of Honey’s personal and professional woes. She really wants to be a screenwriter, but as tough as it is to make it in Hollywood as a writer, it’s even tougher when you’re attached to an unapologetic chauvinist. Things start to change when Honey attends a feminine empowerment seminar led by Mistress Valesca (Molly Shannon) and women’s health guru Christiane Northrup on a whim. There she meets Candy (Stephanie Beatriz) and Eva (Angela Kinsey), two women similarly discontented with their lives. The three become fast friends, literally, as in before you know it they’re done praising each other’s vaginas (also literally) and making wishes on magic candles. The candles, so goes the hope, will make their dreams come true and their fantasies come to life.
And they do, sort of. If there’s one thing Half Magic does very well, it tempers its blatant wish fulfillment with the hard knocks of reality. Honey, for instance, asks for hot sex with a handsome stranger, and bam, she runs into hippie hunk Freedom (Luke Arnold) that very night. That’s a win! Freedom also has a pretty gnarly drug habit. That’s a loss. Candy wants her boyfriend (Alex Beh) to stop seeing other women and be exclusive with her, while Eva just wants normal sex and maybe to get back together with her ex-husband, Darren (Thomas Lennon), and while their desires appear to be met at first, there’s always another shoe to drop. As a basic throughline for a movie, that’s fundamentally sound: Men are dogs, celebrate solidarity through your female relationships.
The problem is that as soon as the shoe drops, Half Magic lifts it back up, and then it drops again, and then again. Articulating the uncertainties of adulthood from the perspective of women wading through male bullshit is one thing, but Half Magic can’t make a single decision without walking it back and forth ever so slightly. Graham’s plots and characters don’t have arcs so much as they have ampersands, buttressed by too much on-the-nose or ham-handed dialogue. We don’t really need Peter to spearhead production on a videogame where the object is to stab women in the ass to understand that he’s a raging asshole.
Honey eventually pitches her own movie idea and works on it with John (Michael Aronov), a coworker and legit nice guy who supports her and has an undisguised but respectfully reined in crush on her. Honey’s script is about sex positivity, meaning it’s about women gaining superpowers from their orgasms and fighting evil. Whatever merit Half Magic has as an act of catharsis, it’s a much less interesting movie than the movie Honey proposes—perhaps Graham will make that her next project. Until then, we have Half Magic, a half-good film of wholly good intentions.
Director: Heather Graham
Writer: Heather Graham
Starring: Heather Graham, Stephanie Beatriz, Angela Kinsey, Chris D’Elia, Michael Aronov, Jason Lewis, Thomas Lennon, Luke Arnold, Rhea Perlman
Release Date: February 23, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.