I wasn't immediately taken with The Puffy Chair, when I first saw it last spring at SXSW. The dictionary definition of "unassuming", the video-shot road trip comedy of discomfiture follows the disintegration of Josh (Mark Duplass) and Emily (Kathryn Aselton), a couple whose multi-year relationship melts down when Emily accompanies Josh and his brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) on a roadtrip to his parents' house. A minor hit at Sundance, it eventually won the Emerging Visions award at SXSW, and already halfway through that festival a kind of Puffy Chair mania seemed to be in the air. In short, I think my hype allergy flared up before I had even seen it; I walked out of the film's screening at the Paramount Theater and prompty shrugged. But in the months since, I haven't been able to get its first sequence out of my head, and so I made a point to see it again at CIFF.
Puffy opens on a tight, shaky shot of Duplass (the film's screenwriter and co-producer, as well as its star; it was directed by his brother Jay, and "executive produced" by their parents) goofily dancing with a fried chicken drumstick in his hand. The handheld shot opens up to reveal Josh and Emily, sitting across from one another at a kitchen table, deep in the middle of what we'll soon realise is an all-too-rare moment of euphoria for them. And the mood starts to fall apart as soon as we're in it: when Josh thanks his girlfriend for making him dinner, Emily quickly slips into baby talk – all the better to passive-aggressively express her displeasure over Josh's impending journey. "I wanted to make sure you knew what you were leaving behind," she coos insistently. "I wanted to make sure you knew how much you were going to miss me." Josh plays along: "I know," he sings, trying to match her register. "So much I'm going to die." Without dropping the affectation, he drops some exposition: the trip is really important to him; he's really looking forward to getting out on the road; he's eager to get away. Emily suddenly drops the singsong act – and if this is her standard cadence, it's no wonder Josh needs a vacation: "Yeah, I know," she snaps. Josh's cell phone rings, and he takes the call. Within moments, the attention-hungry Emily has upended the dinner table and stormed out of the apartment. "Just the TV," Josh says into the phone. "I'm ... I'm gonna go turn it off." Needless to say, the happy, dancing, fried chicken reverie has been completely lost.