Casting matters.

Movie fans know all too well that you have to wade through a lot of disappointment to find the good stuff. And it’s not always some binary pile-sorting of "good movies" and "bad movies"; sometimes there’s quality material smack in the middle of the muck. Say Something Nice is dedicated to those gems - memorable, standout, even great moments from movies that...well, aren’t.

In a slight departure from our usual M.O., That Awkward Moment is a straight-up terrible movie. It isn’t just a trite piece of filmmaking, haphazardly strung together from the worst tendencies of juvenile, “guy-centric” comedies, it’s also a film with an ugly core to top it all off. It’s borderline sociopathic (Bilge Ebiri’s review for Vulture is a must) and it’s about as unaware of its own premise as Collateral Beauty, only without the supernatural hocus pocus to spackle over its jaw-dropping tone deafness. And yet, I saw it twice in theatres and I’d gladly watch it again, because it’s also masterclass in nuanced, naturalistic acting.

Zac Efron had just played a surgeon trying to save JFK in Parkland, and he was on his way to crafting a vulnerable comedic performance in Neighbors. Miles Teller had just dived in to the role of a lonely alcoholic in The Spectacular Now and was about to sweat it out in Whiplash. Michael B. Jordan was in between his turns as Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station and Adonis Creed in Creed, and Mackenzie Davis who had just come off a Canadian Screen Award nomination in The F Word was on her way to setting the small screen ablaze with Halt and Catch Fire on AMC. Fittingly, That Awkward Moment was an awkward moment for all involved, but even stranger is the fact that were you to put together an acting reel for this stage in each performers’ career, you’d do well to include some of what you see here. 

While all the other aforementioned works offer far more by way of catharsis, resonance and depth on the page, what feels almost special about Efron, Teller, Jordan and Davis here is the degree to which they elevate That Awkward Moment, creating interpersonal dynamics seemingly out of thin air while breathing life and lived reality into characters that would otherwise be dead on arrival. I chose this first clip because it highlights my point on two fronts: one, the subtle ways in which each actor externalizes their character’s thought process, and two, the fact that the entire story can be summed up in this one scene. Teller and Efron are trying to fuck their way through singledom to help Jordan get through his divorce. Teller falls for their close friend Davis on the side, and Efron is an asshole who wouldn’t attend a funeral because he didn’t want it to seem like he was dating someone close to the deceased. (The someone in question is played by Imogen Poots, who sadly doesn’t get to spend as much time with the cast outside Efron, otherwise she’d surely feature here.)

Take Teller, Efron and Davis during the initial moments of that bathroom kerfuffle, and how they each take their time to build their reactions. Teller lets the sound of the door register before turning his attention towards it bit-by-bit, first by a halt in bodily momentum, then by letting his eyes move in its direction without actually changing position, before shifting his gaze back towards Davis’ character in order to joke about the situation. As we cut back from Efron taking a whiz (a surprisingly common theme throughout the film), Davis’ attention shifts constantly between her immediate and broader surroundings through little more than where she focuses her eyes: either directly at Teller or just past him, all while caught in the excitement of the moment.

The pièce de résistance of the scene, however, is Efron registering the visual information he’s presented with, first nodding upward as he sees the familiar face of his friend (almost as if to say “Sup?”), then glancing down at what he’s actually up to and shuffling back in disgust, a transition across 36 frames at most. You might not want to given the movie in question, but you could break down any of the scenes with two or more of these actors and find transitionary story beats turned into visual gags all on their own.

When Jordan enters, he sits down and drags the momentum of the scene with him, acting as both a foil to its pre-existing energy and a brand new focal point. Teller approaches in order to comfort him while wearing no pants, a silly joke imbued with undertones of gay panic, but one where the realization of the situation dawns on each character gradually – for Jordan, as he looks up from his vulnerable position, moving his line of sight from Teller’s face to the empty space in front of him as he senses Teller’s junk in his peripheries; for Teller, the realization comes about only after Jordan has re-enforced his disapproval – as opposed to the sudden record-scratch moment that most American comedies might feature.

What makes all these “awkward” moments work in their own strange way (at least in momentum if not in actual logistics) is the actors’ understanding of awkward moments themselves. Not as bullet-points in vacuum, but exclamation points at the end of a sentence, each born out of character dynamics and externalized as the drawn-out absorption of information. These are dumb, self-absorbed characters, and it takes them a second to step outside their personal headspace in order to take in the world around them.

When the male trio’s conflict comes to a head, it’s in the form of passing around blame for their own decisions. For Jordan, it’s the need to confront Efron about his selfish behaviour while just barely breaking out of the depressive shell in which he entered the scene, peppering his aggressive masculinity with hints of wounded pup. For Efron, it’s about not wanting to be confrontational at all. As Jordan opens up new questions with each statement, Efron tries to place himself above the conversation and end it with unsatisfying answers. Meanwhile Teller, sans pants, just wants to lighten the mood. It’s a case of simple motivations driving each actor: confront, avoid, entertain.

The movie not having much to offer shouldn’t be a surprise since its trailers feature pretty much the only scenes that are worth a damn, but it’s those scenes that form the backbone for these performances. In fact, it was this pair of clips that sold me on the film in the first place:

While exemplifying the kind of played out, non-committal male characters who eventually find a girl they like enough to up-end their childish lifestyle, what these clips also do is display just how much fun the actors are having together. This sort of chemistry and camaraderie is important in order to unearth the nuances of any written relationship, and whether or not the scenes are entirely or partially improvised, it’s the tiny moments in between the dialogue that tell you where these characters are with regards to one another.

In the first clip, Teller tries to process the fact that Efron is bringing a girl over, as he switches between outward indignance (“I have to fart, but maybe I can’t right now”), to compromising acceptance over the situation when he sees an opportunity (“She better have some hot friends”), then in the other direction back towards a more outward aggression (“Dude, you are pissing me off”), until he finally settles on a façade of passive-aggressive indifference (“Open the door, I don’t care, I’m getting wasted”), all one right after the other.

In the second clip, Efron’s and Jordan’s characters engage in a sort of tête-à-tête over ice-cream, with Efron waltzing cautiously towards Jordan whilst repeating “Gimme the ice cream,” each time with a new variation on the phrase. As he moves closer, his smile and his eyes widen mischievously as his tone goes from casual demand to knowing announcement of his intent to mess around, and by the time he asks for it a third time, he’s already within reach and the “Gimme the ice cream” becomes little more than a repetition that undscores their boyish roughhousing. And while this part of the scene might be focused on Efron, the little we see of Jordan’s posture shows him adjusting to the demands accordingly, slowly accepting his friend’s attempt at teasing like he’s being drawn in by Efron’s charm.

The binary, “Razzied” way in which we talk about acting (as an extension of the film’s quality; bad movie? Bad character? Bad acting!) is one that places a stranglehold on how we view performances, but when actors are able to live in the moment even when the moment is discernibly nonsensical is when their talents are often put to the test. To be clear, none of this makes That Awkward Moment a good movie, but cut differently, it could’ve been a self-aware satire about guy-centric rom coms given how straight the actors play it, filling otherwise empty vessels with internal life, thus stopping the film from being totally irredeemable. It may still fail to contextualize their childish selfishness, or give its women much to do beyond act as outlets for the trio’s respective insecurities and epiphanies, but if nothing else, it acts as a surprising showcase for four of this generation’s best young performers.