I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Women at crossroads in their lives. Women who feel their worlds falling apart and don’t know what to do about it. Women who’ve lost their mojo… or never even found it in the first place. These are not the sorts of personal crises that we typically see women experiencing onscreen (though men have countless cinematic examples to follow when they find themselves in a rut). So I was delighted to discover two films that fall into the sparsely populated subgenre of Women Who Go in Search of a Kick in the Butt (Though They Might Not Realize That’s What They’re Doing). And they’re even both written and directed by women!
At first, The Intervention might not appear to belong in this category: it’s the tale of four couples coming together for a party weekend, and though one is a lesbian couple, that still leaves three men in the mix whose manpain could end up dominating the story, as typically happens. Not here. This is all about the relationship problems of two women — problems they won’t even admit to themselves exist, never mind problems they’re avoiding — even as they plan to try to fix the marriage of a third woman.
Jessie (Clea DuVall: Argo, Zodiac) and Annie (Melanie Lynskey: They Came Together, Happy Christmas) have organized the getaway at a gorgeous, and somewhat remote, South Carolina manor in order to stage an intervention in the marriage of Jessie’s sister and Annie’s pal Ruby. We wonder at first whether Jessie and Annie are perhaps overreacting, but the moment we meet Ruby (Cobie Smulders: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Results) and her husband, Peter (Vincent Piazza: Jersey Boys), they are sniping at each other in an unpleasant yet routine way that tells you that sniping has become the only way they communicate. They obviously do need some sort of help, though whether it’s the place of even people who love them dearly to intercede becomes a bit of an oblique running motif. The wisely observant script — by DuVall, who also makes her debut as director — is all about that push-and-pull desire to help our friends while also trying to avoid hurting them in the process, about walking that fine line between wanting to run away from deep, painful reality and wanting to confront it and get it over with. This is a terrific cinematic expression of truths about emotional labor that many women will recognize: Do we rip the Band-Aid off quickly, or rip it off slowly, or just leave it on for a while longer and hope the wound isn’t turning gangrenous?
And while everyone is having explicit discussions about how best to help Ruby and Peter, there’s a lot of avoiding going on of the stumbling blocks Jessie seems to have set up in her relationship with Sarah (Natasha Lyonne: Girl Most Likely, American Reunion) — they’ve been dating for three years and still don’t live together? what’s up with that? — and whatever the heck is going on with Annie, who cannot seem to finish planning her wedding to Matt (Jason Ritter: The East, W.); they’ve been engaged forever and the big day keeps getting postponed. Even as Jessie and Annie are consumed with helping Ruby, they’re also fretting over Peter’s best friend, Jack (Ben Schwartz: The Walk, Runner Runner), who has brought along his new, much younger girlfriend, Lola (Alia Shawkat: Green Room, Ruby Sparks). Is there something wrong with Jack that he isn’t interested in women his own age? Why won’t he grow up?
Jack seems okay with himself, and that’s the point: It’s easier for Annie and Jessie to focus on fixing someone else, even someone who doesn’t need fixing, than fixing themselves. Lynskey won an award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for her performance here, which is a tragicomic marvel of good intentions twisted into neurotic denial and whatever the opposite of self-absorption is. Self-abnegation, perhaps, in the face of taking on too much emotional labor? The Intervention is smart and polished, and confidently pulled off by DuVall — I will be very eager to see what she does next as a filmmaker — but its feminist ethos is the best thing about it: its insistence that looking after other people at the expense of taking care of yourself is not healthy.
There Is a New World Somewhere
There Is a New World Somewhere is, in theory, exactly the sort of movie I am very eager to see more of, because it is about a woman embarking on the same sort of adventure that men onscreen get to enjoy on a regular basis. Struggling New York artist Sylvia (Agnes Bruckner) heads home to Texas to attend the wedding of a high-school friend, but then bails on the festivities and hits the road with the handsome stranger, Esteban (Maurice Compte: A Walk Among the Tombstones, Sabotage), she meets at one of the prewedding parties.
Unfortunately, none of the danger or excitement or risk inherent in abandoning one’s friends to get in a car with a man one knows absolutely nothing about ever comes to the fore in Somewhere . As they drive from Austin to New Orleans and then on to Nashville, they see the sites and — disappointingly — endure clichéd romantic montage sequences; there may be the twinkling lights of a carousel at one point. What they don’t find is much in the way of conflict or drama. We never know why Sylvia felt compelled to run away from her friend’s wedding (and she suffers almost no consequences for treating her friends so badly). We never understand whether she is struggling as an artist because she’s not very good or because she’s not getting a fair shake (and we never understand whether her adventure has inspired her as an artist in any meaningful way; a few sketches of Esteban she produces tell us nothing). A few subtle hints that conflict may be in the offing amount to zip, as when Esteban explains to Sylvia that his work writing eight entries a week for one of those idiotic how-to Web sites (think: how to open a beer) is how he supports himself, which is clearly nonsense: eight of those a day would not be enough to live and travel on. Is he lying to her about his financial resources for some reason that we never learn? Or does writer-director Li Lu — an installation and music-video artist making her feature debut — simply not realize how little sense any of that makes?
It should at least ring false to Sylvia, but she barely seems to react to anything. She — like the movie itself — is way too mellow for the confusion and unsettled emotion she is supposed to be experiencing. She — and Esteban — ultimately fails to engage us as a person we can identify with: she doesn’t even come across as *unappealing.* She simply never sparks to life at all, perhaps because she has almost nothing lively to react against. There Is a New World Somewhere is a road movie with no drive, one that, sadly, ends up nowhere.
There Is a New World Somewhere is screening in a few US cities on August 31st. See the official site for details.