On the surface, Jake Mahaffy’s Wellness seems similar to many films that have played at SXSW recently. It was made with almost no money, shot on a handheld camera with natural light, and the non-actor cast was not working from a script. While many films that fit this description never leave the territory of Gen-Y narcissism, Wellness takes a different tack, examining several days in the life of a middle-aged pyramid scheme salesman. Like many films of its ilk, it nails awkward social situations with laser precision, but the value of Wellness doesn’t stop there. As the tragic story unfolds, the film becomes a profound meditation on the blurry line between faith and self-deception. Early on in the film we begin to suspect that the Wellness company may not be on the up and up. Our salesman, Thomas Lindsay, meets his boss Paul for the first time, with high hopes of impressing him and moving up in the company. Paul, played brilliantly by Mahaffy’s father, is tyrannical and abrasive. The two attempt several sales meetings together, which end with Thomas sheepishly trying to reign in Paul, whose curse-laden tirades literally send customers running. All of this should be extremely funny, but the empathy that Jeff Clark’s portrayal of Thomas elicits is too devastating to allow for much laughter. Mahaffy strikes a careful balance in how we perceive Thomas. After every disastrous incident, he calls home to his wife, whom he invariably lies to, telling her that everything is going well. Even as we pity Thomas for being duped into sinking his life savings into a pyramid scheme with a seemingly non-existent product, Mahaffy repeatedly temps us to condemn him. On top of lying to his wife, Thomas does make several successful sales, but the joy of these moments is quickly eclipsed by the realization that he is no longer just a victim of the scam, but a perpetrator as well. By its midpoint, Wellness has tapped into a very pervasive sort of melancholy. What do you do when you realize you believe in something that doesn’t exist? In one sense, it seems clear that Thomas should cut his losses, fess-up to his wife, and move on. But he’s either too fearful, or prideful, to face the fact that he’s been duped. And while the right course of action is even clearer to us as observers, Thomas’ hope is contagious. Despite myself, I found that I was cheering him on, hoping in vain that business would pick up. The film shows that our capacity for hope shares all too much in common with our capacity for denial. Wellness won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW this year. Be sure to listen to FilmCouch this Friday (episode 61), to hear an interview with director Jake Mahaffy and star Jeff Clark.