Bellamy Young, Maël Fergio and Tom Cavanagh in Love & Debt (Photo: Fabrication Films & A Day in the Life Films)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Valerie Landsburg
STARS Tom Cavanagh, Bellamy Young

It’s hard to imagine that a domestic seriocomedy could be almost as nerve-jangling as a war flick like 1917 or a horror yarn like The Invisible Man, yet that’s the case with the indie effort Love & Debt. A look at a family in turmoil, the film features ample scenes of people screaming at each other, people misunderstanding each other, people acting in absolutely idiotic ways, and — or did I already mention this? — people screaming at each other. The shrieking doesn’t reach the level of RNC stooge Kimberly Guilfoyle — what could, except maybe the mythological banshee? — but it’s stressful enough to possibly leave viewers fumbling for the volume control, or maybe a stiff drink.

If that makes Love & Debt sound like a depressing time spent on the couch, that’s not exactly accurate. The tension is ultimately acceptable because it’s in the service of an engaging movie that’s populated by instantly recognizable and — with one exception — immediately sympathetic people. Written by debuting screenwriter Dylan Otto and directed by Valerie Landsburg (best known for portraying student Doris Schwartz in the ‘80s TV series Fame), the film might occasionally get too fanciful in some of its plotting but always finds its way back to its believably flawed, frustrating and forgivable characters.

Henry Warner (Tom Cavanagh, Harrison Wells on TV’s The Flash) not only lugs around over $80,000 in debt but has also just recently lost his job. He keeps this news from his wife Karen (Bellamy Young), who is similarly in emotional freefall from having to deal with an overbearing mother (Brynn Thayer, saddled with the only unredeemable character) and a daughter (Bailee Madison as Melissa) who’s clearly in the Mommy-hating phase of her teens (younger children Trinity and Matty, played by Lillian Ellen Jones and Maël Fergio, are easier to handle). Karen is also feeling distant from her husband, who she believes doesn’t provide enough support (mentally or physically) when it comes to the household.

Bailee Madison in Love & Debt

A major plotline in the film is the effort of a nice guy named Travis (Casey Abrams), newly hired as a debt collector, to try to get Henry to pay the $80,000. The presence of Travis of course leads to many vignettes set around the office, ones involving a cranky boss (Erick Avari), prankster co-workers (Ed Marinaro and Daryl Mitchell), and a depressing work environment. None of these scenes are bad — indeed, there are some amusing moments, such as the desk drawer filled with nothing but years of cigarette butts. But these interludes feel completely unnecessary, not only because they often employ the disruptive cadence of a sitcom but also because the material involving the Warners is strong enough to have carried the entire movie.

We feel for Henry when his mother-in-law (who despises him) unexpectedly enters the room while he’s masturbating over Internet porn. We cry for Karen as she repeatedly tries to corral her messy emotions (Young is excellent at conveying the despairing side of her character). And we smile when the self-centered Melissa surprisingly rises to the occasion when her family needs her the most. This is an American family doing its best to survive in a capitalist country that has let it down at every turn, and perhaps what’s ultimately most stressful about Love & Debt is the realization that the tale is too close for comfort.

(Love & Debt is now available on Amazon Prime, Apple, Vudu, and other streaming services.)

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