Grocery store checkout lanes are unusual places because people show everything about who they are and think they show nothing. It’s all right there on that rolling food-and-goods catwalk, all our personal preferences summed up in a shopping cart of air fresheners (Hawaiian breeze or fresh linen?) and bread and bananas and toilet tissue (Charmin or Quilted Northern?). Cashiers probably see more of human nature in a day than psychologists see in a lifetime, and still it feels anonymous.
Brad Silberling’s simplistic “10 Items or Less” isn’t about the anonymity, though; like “Snow Cake,” another indie 2006 release, it’s about the everyday opportunities for connection that people miss. On any other day, the protagonist, an actor known just as “Him” (Morgan Freeman), would belong in this category. But in the opening of “10 Items or Less,” Him is in a vulnerable spot. After commercial success in a few films with Ashley Judd (a nice dose of meta-humor), Him’s fame torch is flickering out. The big-money offers from big-name directors have dried up, so he’s considering taking a part in an indie film. Freeman, in his typical uncannily intuitive, droll and non-pretentious Morgan Freeman way, reasons this is a no-risk move. He even dubs it “the cinematic equivalent of a blow job” because if the movie’s a Sundance hit, it will boost his indie cred; if it’s a flop, hey, no harm done. Silberling may be pretty new to this scriptwriting gig, but observations like that sure don’t make him sound green.
At the Ranch Market in sun-bleached, bland Carson, Calif., Him locates his subject of study: Scarlet (Paz Vega), a bored and cranky cashier who’s an expert at sizing up her customers the minute they walk in the stoor. (Her P.A. system upbraiding of a repeat melon squeezer shows Vega has a comic timing purely her own.) She’s only 25, but already she hates her job, hates her ex (Bobby Cannavale) and the lazy coworker who’s sleeping with him (Anne Dudek), hates her life. In Vega there’s a stubborness that makes it easy to believe someone so young could be so hard. The actress, with that resoluteness and timing, is more than a Penelope Cruz copycapt. Him decides — if for no reason other than he’s stranded at the market because his ride (Jonah Hill) is M.I.A. — to help her lighten up. Somewhere between the 10 items or less lane, Target (Him is so awed by the low prices he demands “do people know about this place?”) and the job interview Scarlet’s dreading the two strike up a temporary, momentous friendship.
Owing to this lack of excitement (excluding the part where Scarlet rams her ex’s car), “10 Items or Less” is like any other independent film only moreso, Rick Blaine would say. Shot-wise, nothing stands out as aesthetically inventive, but that’s well and good — cameras in a minimalist character drama are meant to stay in the background. So is the plot, which is a string of barely interconnected scenes that require a lot of driving, some violence (see above) and humor, but not the yuk-it-up kind. This film’s whole reason for being is Scarlet and Him and the relationship they create out of practically nothing. Silberling sets about building their friendship very casually, starting with Him’s marvelling at the way Scarlet’s lightning-fast reflexes and Scarlet’s wariness of his boundless enthusiasm for the job she despises. Freeman is a snug fit for the role of Him, a part he’s playing in “10 Items or Less” and probably has played before in his many years as an actor. He’s the right kind of wise and the right kind of encouraging to push Scarlet’s Vega outside her small, unhappy life. Vega, so arresting in “Spanglish,” has enough anger-fueled gumption to match this star scene for scene. She’s got the leading-lady face; the talent is character actress-ready.
This is what I love about “10 Items or Less” in particular: Actors aside, there’s little to distinguish Him and Scarlet from the million other humans on Earth. They aren’t special at all, which is the very reason their story is poignant. They could be anybody, they are anybody, and together they are two anybodies better for having met each other.