Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Two US Indie Comedies

Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton – USA)  90 minutes
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach – USA) 86 minutes

At some point about a decade ago, American Indie films stopped looking like Indie films – or at least what they looked like back in the 80s and 90s. This was largely because independent filmmaking became co-opted by off-shoots of Hollywood studios and increasingly came to appear like Sundance product with beefed-up production values, stars appearing for scale and more ambitious subject matter and themes. In the past couple of years, no doubt because of America’s rickety economy and a consequent parsimony in Hollywood, we are beginning to see a return of films that look like they might have been made in the heyday of John Sayles, Hal Hartley or early Gus Van Sant.

Your Sister’s Sister, by Lynn Shelton, director of the 2009 comedy Humpday is one such film. It is essentially a three-hander, set in Washington state (Shelton lives in Seattle, but it is curious how US Indie films seem to set themselves apart from Hollywood by looking almost Canadian). Mark Duplass (from Humpday) plays Jack, a humorous but depressive thirty-something, struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother. His best friend (also his brother’s ex) Iris (Emily Blunt) suggests he take some time out at her parent’s holiday home on an island off the Seattle coast. When he arrives there though, he finds Iris’ sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has just walked out on her neglectful girlfriend. After getting drunk together, the two end up sleeping with each other, only for Iris to arrive unannounced the next morning. Jack and Hannah agree not to let her know what happened but that is not going to be too easy.

It starts off very well, with Jack dyspeptically scorning the fellow attendees at a memorial gathering for his brother; he counters a heart-warming tale of the dead man’s altruism after watching Hotel Rwanda with one of his brother’s Damascene conversion from bully to nice guy after watching Revenge of the Nerds (!) Duplass is excellent in the role, harbouring pain, anger and self-deprecation, and Shelton’s script shrewdly withholds much information (we never learn, for instance, how his brother died), leaving us to puzzle over what exactly is bringing him down. DeWitt is also good, being a rare example of an actress in an American film that talks like American women one might know in real life. She is bright, sassy and talkative. Only Blunt, with her imported British accent that is explained away in the script, is a bit flat.

But where the first half of the film is a sparky dark comedy, it descends into something a lot more formulaic once the fateful copulation takes place. What might have been an interesting comedy of manners is squandered in a series of unconvincing disputes and the crisis is resolved far too easily. The turn the film takes is catastrophic, and I don’t mean that in the Shakespearean sense. It is also, after the initial edgy promise of a film exploring sexual politics, grief and betrayal, despairingly conservative, saccharine even. A clear sign of a writer-director not really knowing how to follow through on an interesting premise.

Noah Baumbach’s third feature, shot in high-contrast black and white, is another Indie film that looks like a throwback to a couple of decades ago. Written with the film’s star (and Baumbach’s real-life partner) Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is a light but deftly nuanced portrait of a hyperactive Millenial New Yorker. 28-year-old Frances is struggling as a dance company apprentice, forever hoping for the big opening that might free her from the impecunious existence she leads. She gets dumped by her boyfriend when she declines to move in with him due to her loyalty to her flatmate Sophie (Mickey Sumner), only to be then cast aside by her shortly afterwards.

The film from there on is a low-rent picaresque, where Frances, rudderless (or ‘undateable’ as her new flatmates Lev and Dan call her), drifts from one precarious living situation to another, sub-letting, couch-surfing and eventually going back to her alma mater Vassar to try and earn some extra cash. Frances is surrounded by people who have money but her own protestations of poverty are dismissed – Dan says at one point, ‘to say you’re poor is an insult to people who are really poor’. That’s a fair point but the film is unusual in its portrayal of a college graduate who is struggling to get things off the ground. Even Indie films rarely concern themselves too much with things like personal economics, though many of the people involved in their making have probably known even at least temporary hardship.

Gerwig, who was last seen in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress and Woody Allen’s utterly forgettable To Rome with Love, is endearingly fantastic as Frances. She is daffy but confident; sprightly but self-doubting. Her elastic, effervescent performance is likely to divide people as much as Sally Hawkins’ in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky did, but those who watch it with a bit of patience will be rewarded. I don’t know how much of a market there is for it, but Gerwig is a comedy all-rounder, equally at home with gangly slapstick as she is with deadpan repartee. The film is very built around her but she emerges as an undisputed star from it.

Baumbach, who probably could have easily made a more commercial offering, also deserves credit for persisting with a type of guerrilla filmmaking that produces unexpectedly fresh results (much of it was shot on the hoof, without permits). Frances Ha is a light comedy but it inhabits its space very convincingly and its brilliant portrayal of such a great character offsets the rushed nature of its narrative (the end, in particular, is thrown together a bit too easily). There are touches of Jim Jarmusch (when he was still an interesting filmmaker) to it but the main reference is Truffaut. There are constant allusions to him in the film, which is strewn with pieces of Georges Delarue’s music from Truffaut’s films. Like Truffaut, Baumbach is good at making the trivial significant; he even short-circuits the usual American fawning over Paris by having Frances spend two days there on a whim only to become even more alienated there. Frances Ha does not take itself very seriously but it is a very good example of serious comedy. Unlike Baumbach’s sometime collaborator, Wes Anderson, he manages to stay just the right side of mannered. A very funny, deceptively simple film that is likely to be one of the best American comedies this year.