Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer and Mary Kay Place
Directed by James Ponsoldt
We the audience watch Kate (Winstead) and Charlie Hannah (Paul) hurriedly waking up to a frazzled version of a morning routine. She already knows that she’ll be arriving at work late, but there’s a spry spirit within these characters and their environment, that indie folk musical score by Andy Cabic and Eric D. Johnson guiding our perspective of a loving married couple still making each other breakfast.
I love these jerks. She is our favourite elementary school teacher, pretending that her marker is Bob Barker’s microphone, turning an inner-city classroom into The Price is Right. Her youth makes her able to pull off duster dresses, looking ‘vintage’ instead of dowdy and poor, living as if the fashion-conscious Angeleno didn’t exist. They’re the kind of annoyingly hilarious people who slowly pedal their hipster bikes through the avenues of Highland Park, indifferent to the shiny black cars behind them. They represent a new demographic within greater Los Angeles that’s more Greenberg and less The Hills. Captured within Tobias Datum’s cinematography, it shows an overcast city instead of the sun-baked one of contemporary mythology. That they are just like the youth in any North American city, surviving the ineffable middle ground between obtuseness and subversiveness, comfort and stasis.
Since I love the movie, I’ll now tear it to pieces for objectivity’s sake. The event that gets the movie rolling happens early enough in the movie, as she pukes in front of her class. She can’t necessarily reveal her drunkenness to these innocent children. Conveniently, one of them asks if she’s pregnant because the child has seen women throw up under the same state of health. Pressed for an answer, she says yes, she’s pregnant. Which leads to my main criticism of the movie that depicts or assumes that Kate’s decision-making comes from well, because she’s an alcoholic! But then, I suppose, what would we have done?
There are also the undeveloped supporting characters. I saw this movie back at TIFF, the movie’s producer Jennifer Cochis revealing that the original script told both Kate and Charlie’s story. At first, I wished that movie would have been made – there’s probably a small market for two and half hour American neorealism out there. Spencer, who, during this movie’s shooting, had a simmering Oscar buzz, plays Kate’s AA sponsor, seems slightly close to BBF territory if not for her first subdued monologue about her new food addiction. There are less well-drawn characters like Dave (Offerman), the vice-principal in Kate’s school, and the principal herself (Mullally). There are also details that I already forgot about, even whole characters like Kate’s mother (Place) who is unapologetic about her own alcoholism. The biggest victim of this kind of script slashing seems to be Charlie. We’re assuming that he’s just hanging out in pool halls with his brother, but how does his addiction and rich parents affect his supposedly stalled career as a writer? Indies like this negotiate between looking like multi-dimensional character studies and having a snappy, succinct flow. This close the latter and is the better for it, and we get a movie with strong female character in a cinematic landscape that lacks equal gender representation.
Then there’s the frankness that I assume other audiences of critics can receive as vulgarity. But It doesn’t matter that Dave has a crude way of revealing his attraction to Kate. The audiences will laugh at this awkward scene and at Offerman’s careful delivery, probably more than jaded critics will too. Here is where I take the stand that performances and cadences can overcome any distasteful subject or series of events that it portrays. Besides, the characters’ alcoholism is central to the story but unlike other dreary addiction movies, we’re shown other glimpses of the characters’ lives. We’re not watching 85 minutes of a face and a bottle. It’s that razor-thin tightrope walk where Kate and Charlie’s benders can be both backyard stories and alarm bells of certain self-destruction, and Winstead’s performance captures both extremes.
One last thing is that this movie is gif-able, tumblrable and quotable, its script containing funny one-liners said both by Kate and the addicts she meets. Charlie’s last words to Kate, reaching out to a woman he may have totally lost, doesn’t seem tacked on. His sense of longing during this last scene is as poignant as the movie’s bigger emotions.
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