“Sensitivity Training” explores the adage “suffering builds character” in a humorous tale of forced friendship

PHOTO COURTESY OF SLOANSUMMIT2014.ORG  Melissa Finnel’s “Sensitivity Training” is a skillful first film.


Melissa Finnel’s “Sensitivity Training” is a skillful first film.

Phoebe Lease ’21 | Arts Editor

Meet Serena: she regularly gets kicked out of movie theatres, snaps at coworkers in her microbiology lab and corrects the grammar of her date mid-hookup. In her opinion, the fewer people she has to fake kindness towards, the better. But after taking a critique of a colleague too far, she must undergo sensitivity training if she wants to keep her job.

“Sensitivity Training” follows Serena’s personal transformation as she grudgingly accepts the constant companionship of Caroline, the sensitivity coach assigned to her. As Serena starts experiencing her first real friendship, she begins wondering if there’s something else growing between her and Caroline, too.

Director Melissa Finnel, an ’08 Smith alumna and graduate of UCLA’s MFA film program, uses “Sensitivity Training” to explore the relationship between people who are complete opposites. Serena has certainly found her opposite in Caroline, the human embodiment of a Care Bear. The film revolves mainly around Serena’s personal life, but Caroline has her own issues to work on as well. She’s tired of being polite to men who only seek her help with their sexual harassment “rehabilitation” cases, and her relationship with her wife is beginning to tear at the seams as she spends more and more time with Serena. The two friends have to learn to both lash out and calm down, to be both tough and kind. As Finell explains in an interview, “I am very drawn to stories about nice people becoming meaner and mean people becoming nicer.”

Although it is centered mainly around these two, the film includes stellar performances from the side characters as well. Serena’s abrasive one-liners elicit laughs, but the true humor of the movie comes from nuanced facial expressions and well-timed silences. Quinn Marcus’s role as Serena’s grad assistant, Ellen, is particularly strong in this area, and her bewildered side-glances say more than any witty remark could. She is also a relatable character, whose tears and laughter feel the most genuine out of the cast.

The development of other characters, especially Caroline, doesn’t feel as fleshed-out as it could, and this is where “Sensitivity Training” falls a little flat. Even though Serena is supposed to be the guarded one, Caroline never seems to fully express a negative emotion, instead relying on therapy-speak to explain her feelings as her face remains perfectly blank. At one point, she cries in front of her family after a falling out with Serena, but the scene still has an air of comedy, as though the audience isn’t supposed to see Caroline stray too far from her sunny disposition.

Fortunately, the ending of “Sensitivity Training” is satisfying enough to gloss over any weaknesses in the film. Regardless of the final form that Caroline and Serena’s relationship takes, the viewer is left with interesting questions about the dynamics of female friendships. Finell’s film gives a spotlight to platonic relationships and the ambiguous overlap they share with romantic ones. Are the strong feelings that come with a “friend crush” all that different from romance, and why is our society so adamant about strictly separating the two? “Sensitivity Training” wants viewers to walk away knowing that friendships can be just as fulfilling as any other form of relationship — romantic, familial or otherwise.

Ultimately, Finell’s likeable cast, thoughtful plot and skillful filming techniques make for an impressive debut movie.