At the center of Joanna Arnow’s short, Bad at Dancing, which she wrote, directed and edited, is an unhealthy relationship between two roommates – Joanna (also Arnow) and Isabel (Eleanore Pienta). Or, it may be completely healthy, who is to judge…besides, perhaps, Isabel’s boyfriend, Matt (Keith Poulson), who is growing increasingly uncomfortable with Joanna’s penchant for inserting herself into his relationship with Isabel, typically when the two of them are trying to have sex. Which appears to be the most opportune time for Joanna to discuss any a number of subject revolving around herself with her best friend; obviously, the opposite is true for Isabel and Matt.
The two roommates are constantly struggling with defining their boundaries, which are continually being redrawn day after day. It’s not all Joanna’s fault, however, even though she is the one encroaching upon the couple’s intimacy, time and time again; partial blame can be placed on Isabel and Matt, who fail to clearly set said boundaries. They seem to discuss a healthy array of topics except for one particularly important topic which is when it is appropriate to discuss one’s interest in climate change. Easy answer would seem to be not during sexual intercourse.
Although, Joanna is painted as the exasperating downer with perverse social skills, what could be lost in all of this is the fact that Isabel is effortlessly handling the wants and needs of two of the closest people in her life simultaneously, a balancing act of considering and addressing both the emotional and physical. Obviously, it is an untenable arrangement that is doomed to fail at some point in time, but up until that point, it remains an impressive feat.
There is an abundance of openness on display in Bad at Dancing; a considerable display of sex and nudity, yet never presented in a salacious manner and/or for provocation, instead it is presented matter-of-factly as any other action might be depicted. A twofold signal that not-so-subtly communicates that, for Arnow, anything and everything is open for discussion and/or depiction; that she is certainly comfortable in sowing discomfort and that much of the film’s comedy will stem from the juxtaposition of Isabel’s concurring interactions with her friend and her boyfriend.
Her sullencentric short also exists in black and white, the only way in which it can exist, seemingly, since Joanna’s gloomcloud-incarnate personality could and would conceivably act as a vacuum, sucking and draining the life and color from any situation. Even if Arnow chose to film in Technicolor, her character at the center of Bad at Dancing would empty all primaries and secondaries from the frame, negating them to grayscale through a series of despondent-tinged discussions. The humor is, and would be, left intact though as Arnow is able to render that despondency into deadpan dry comedy; or, perhaps, it becomes comedic because the other options are far too upsetting; laughter as distraction.