Saturday, November 1, 2014

'Say When' (2014) directed by Lynn Shelton

Nobody ever says they like Keira Knightley.  At best she gets grudging tolerance, at worst she suffers snide jabs at her features, her acting abilities and her (imagined) haughty demeanour. Well I'm going to come out on the record and say it: I like Keira Knightley.  I liked her in Pride & Prejudice, I liked her in The Duchess, I liked her in A Dangerous Method, I liked her in The Imitation Game and I like her in Say When.  I even kinda liked her in Pirates of the Caribbean. She is a good actor.

Here she plays Megan, a twenty-eight year old suffered from a stalled life.  She's got an advanced degree, a long term boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) and a smart metropolitan flat; yet true adulthood hasn't quite 'taken' yet.  Whiling away her time as a sign flipper for her Dad's business, she's constantly subtly (and not so subtly) nudged towards career fairs and development counsellors.  The rapid onset of mature tedium leads to to wistfully recall her teenage kicks; smoking cigarettes, drinking wine coolers and skinnydipping with her besties.  Cut to the present day and those besties have metastasised into prissy, uptight WASPS, accompanied with dull husbands and gaggles of screaming, shitting children.

So when her boyfriend unexpectedly proposes she panics and does a runner. She finds refuge with Annika (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz), a 16 year old girl who reminds Megan of the best times in her life.  Needing some time to figure out her future, Megan lies that she's going to a business seminar and holes up in Annika's house, = reverting to a teenage state. Annika's Dad (Sam Rockwell) is equal parts curious, bemused and concerned by this strange woman befriending his teenage daughter, but as a lawyer he feels he's got a pretty good handle on people and grudgingly begins to trust her and maybe even... love her?

Say When (known as Laggies outside the UK) isn't the most ambitious movie you'll ever see. Exploring the difficult transition between late adolescence and adulthood is the the territory of maybe 90% of low-key indie dramas (the remaining 10% being depressed middle-aged couples having affairs, see Lyn Shelton's previous Your Sister's Sister), so exploring the woes of a character who'd rather get drunk and have a good time bridling against responsibility is very familiar territory

Granted these manchild roles tend to be played by Seth Rogen (or Rogen-a-likes), so it's a nice change to see this transition from a woman's perspective.  The gender flip doesn't really break virgin cinematic ground either; but at least the central relationship between the mature-for-her-years Annika and the developmentally stunted Megan has a few interesting wrinkles. Prime among them is the refusal to sink into easy stereotypes; Annika and her friends are entirely believable teenagers, their outlooks, problems and behaviour perfectly pitched at 16.  Not only that, writer/director Lynn Shelton also effortlessly overcomes the not inconsiderable hurdle of getting us to buy into not only a 16 year girl befriending a 28 year old woman, but that woman entering into a relationship with her 45 year old Dad without it feeling even slightly creepy.

With dull-if-competent cinematography and a suburban American setting that throws up very little of visual interest, the success of the film is borne on the backs of the cast.  On the younger side of the generation gap Moretz makes her teenage neuroses feel important; we buy into her rocky relationship with her divorced parents and respect her intelligence and maturity.  The supporting cast teenagers also impress, particularly a scene-stealing turn from Short Term 12's Kaitlyn Dever as smart-ass best friend Misty.

It's the adults that really shine, particularly the love triangle between Knightley, Rockwell and Webber.  The latter, saddled with a thankless role as the supportive yet dull-as-dishwater long term boyfriend expertly injects pathos into the role, his defeated, hangdog expression allowing us to feel sympathetic even as we silently urge Knightley to dump his boring ass. 

But the heart of the film lies with Knightley and Rockwell.  In lesser hands the woes of an attractive, educated, upper middle class woman torn between two attractive wealthy man might come across as a touch insulting; if this is the worst problem you'll ever have to deal with then you've lead a charmed life.  But Knightley digs deep, exposing a raft of vulnerabilities and paranoias in Megan that elevate her into a fully three-dimensional character.  These problems may not amount to a hill of beans, but at least for the film's 90 minute run time I cared about them.

worrr look at em go!
Rockwell isn't stretching quite as far; playing a smart, funny and quietly heartbroken man is firmly within his stable of capabilities.  But in the latter scenes, where needles are jabbed into his psychological wounds he ups the ante, giving us a powerful dose of crushing disappointment as we watch his last dreams of happiness shriveling up before our very eyes. This is aided by some genuine chemistry between him and Knightley, including one slam-wham-bam first kiss that instantly goes down as (so far) my 'Kiss of 2014'.

As well as these characters are realised they're still locked into a largely predictable series of events.  There's a cliched cycle towards the end of the film where Megan does something horrible to each of the supporting cast in turn, for about 5-10 minutes of the run time they'll hate her guts, but one-by-one she miraculously wins them back over until everyone's super chums all over again. Their easy forgiveness feels a bit trite and ill-earned, undermining some of what was so painstakingly built up in the performances.  Also the relationship between Annika and Megan peters out precisely as Megan starts banging her Dad, which you'd think would warrant slightly more than a shrug and an "I guess I'm cool with it" from Annika.

Say When isn't going to go down in history as a stone cold classic.  It's not even going to be in anyone's Best of 2014 list.  But it's a competent, occasionally touching drama that puts its its best assets (Knightley, Rockwell and Moretz) front and centre and trusts them to do their thing.


Say When is released November 7th

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