The Sunlit Night movie review: room to breathe and think in wide-open spaces

MaryAnn’s quick take: A ramble with appealingly messy people rethinking their priorities that is perhaps more charming and touching than it might have been if this pandemic summer didn’t have so many of us doing the same.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women; love Jenny Slate
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There are too many movies. I’ve been saying this for years now. I love movies but too many are being released every week, every month, every year, for anyone to keep up. Even a professional like me. I’m haunted wondering how many amazing films are getting lost in the scrum for attention. All but the biggest movies, the ones with mega promotional and advertising budgets, are thrust into an unwinnable competition not only for eyeballs to watch them but merely to have their existence acknowledged. I don’t know what the solution is — we can’t just tell people to stop making movies — but it’s a problem.

The Sunlit Night Jenny Slate
“‘Come out to Norway,’ they said. ‘You can do a little painting,’ they said…”

This summer, with cinemas shut down and with the number of new releases dropping dramatically (although there’s still too many and I still can’t keep up), it is slowly dawning on me that apart from there not being enough time to keep up with new movies, there’s also not enough headspace. Maybe this is just me… but apart from the neverending conversation about when the new Christopher Nolan mindbender, Tenet, might get released, there is a refreshing lack of blockbuster bombast filling my head. I mean, I like the big movies and I wouldn’t ignore them even if I could — one needs to be aware of them and see at least some of them if one is to keep abreast of the zeitgeist. My thesis as a critic has always been about how very important movies are in framing the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves, how they shape our overarching cultural mythology, and obviously I cannot think or write about that without watching and thinking and writing about the big movies.

There’s more pathos than eccentricity here, sad sweetness in the gentle emotional and psychological wandering…

What I’m getting at is that I suspect I might have had a different reaction to The Sunlit Night if it had had to battle for space in my brain with stories of impossibly bold, larger-than-life characters zooming through brawny plots and fighting for stakes that are enormous. For this is a small film that meanders among confused people doing their best to muddle through life, all at crossroads that are important to them but small potatoes to an outsider looking in. Now, I could argue that a movie about a character’s small-potatoes journey should nevertheless feel like an asteroid is hurtling toward their world (and in fact I’m almost certain that I have made that argument before). And yet, something about, I dunno, maybe how this summer is causing us all to reconsider our priorities has made this ramble with some appealingly messy people also reconsidering their priorities more charming and touching than it might have been.

The title refers to where New York artist Frances (the always delightful Jenny Slate: The Secret Life of Pets 2, Venom) spends her summer: in northernmost Norway, where the sun never quite sets, working with much more famous, much more accomplished artist Nils (Fridtjov Såheim: The Wave). He is painting a barn as an installation work, hoping to literally get on the map of cultural highlights in the region. Another cultural highlight: the nearby Viking museum/re-creation village, where the “clan leader” is an American (Zach Galifianakis: Missing Link, The Lego Batman Movie) who likes to cosplay. Later Yasha (Alex Sharp) shows up to bury his father, who requested a Viking funeral, trailed by his estranged mother (Gillian Anderson: Robot Overlords, Sold).

The Sunlit Night
Who doesn’t enjoy a good Viking funeral?

If it all sounds typically indie-quirky… well, not quite. Pre-COVID me might have said that director David Wnendt and screenwriter Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, working from her own novel, can’t make up their minds what they want their film to be: earnest dramedy, or keen kook-fest? Now it seems sadly sweet in its gentle emotional and psychological wandering. There’s more pathos than eccentricity in everything here: Nils isn’t quite the asshole he seems at first; Galifianakis underplays the potential wackiness of his “Viking.” Rather than giving in to the easy appeal of idiosyncrasy, Night wrestles, if only mildly, with the outré impulses that drive people, especially creative people, to an atypical life on their own terms.

Such as a desire to run: from difficult things but also toward something as yet unknown but *fingers crossed* better. With Frances and her mopey listlessness — fueled by the breakup of her temperamental parents (David Paymer [Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, The Five-Year Engagement] and Jessica Hecht [A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Anesthesia]) and her lack of professional success — Slate crafts a portrait of a woman lost but not defeated, reaching for something she’s not sure is even there. It’s a kind portrait of unconventionality not as easy cliché but as expectation. Of hope. Frances calls her sojourn in Norway her “arctic detention,” but it is ultimately freeing for her. The change of scenery allows her to see in new ways.

Not to overstretch the metaphor, but, you know: her land of sunlit nights is kinda like the wider, more open spaces of this summer’s movie environment, with room to breathe, and room to think.

The Sunlit Night yellow light
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