In sports, relationships and indeed life, sometimes it’s the little things that end up mattering most—the hustle down the first baseline on a routine grounder, the changed windshield wiper blades as an unsolicited favor for a loved one, and the extra-pass proofreading of a job search query letter. Lest we forget, such can be the case with cinema, too.
For all the Hollywood obsession with high-concept and special effects, sometimes there’s something enchanting about a simple story simply told, and a movie of small rather than grand gestures. Case in point: the pleasant and enchanting Brightest Star, a narratively slight but well acted and keenly observed romantic dramedy about a twentysomething guy’s romantic fumblings and occupational uncertainty. The feature film debut of Maggie Kiley, Brightest Star isn’t a movie of conventionally structured catharsis. But it does understand, on an intuitive level, the enormous weight of young adult ambivalence, and how that can be a suffocating thing in its own right. Formerly titled Light Years, Brightest Star centers around an unnamed guy (Chris Lowell, of Veronica Mars) who meets Charlotte (Rose McIver) in a college astronomy class, falls for her hard, and then successfully negotiates his way out of friendship alley and into a relationship. Charlotte eventually becomes frustrated with his aimlessness, however, and ends things.
When Charlotte leaves him years later, the guy is heartbroken and depressed, and ends up being taken in by Lita (Jessica Szohr) and Ray (Alex Kaluzhsky). In short order, the guy lands a cushy office job from Lita’s dad (Clark Gregg), and before he knows it he’s in a healthy and happy relationship with her, and questioning the wisdom of his misbegotten plans to win Charlotte back.
Physically, Lowell recalls John Krasinski by way of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. At first contact, it seems like Lowell might be too sad-sack or twitchy, but once the movie establishes and sinks down into its own deliberate rhythm, his rumpled demeanor and sympathetic visage—embodying a sort of “everykid” quality, on the cusp of everymandom—is a fine fit. McIver and Szohr deliver fine, fully fleshed-out turns (these characters are real women, not feminine props), while Gregg and Allison Janney (in a late cameo as an astronomer) also turn in solid supporting performances.
Brightest Star has its roots in a well-received short film by Kiley, Some Boys Don’t Leave, and it’s obvious that she and co-writer Matthew Mullen took care to expand the story without altering its focus too much. Jumping back and forth to compare and contrast two time periods in its subject’s life, Brightest Star tinkers with the linear format just enough to be intriguing, but never irritating or overly precious. Kiley’s film has none of the dramatic punching power of something like Blue Valentine, another bifurcated look at the blossom and dissolution of a relationship. And its self-evident lack of interest in the normal dramatic plotting—the rapidity with which its protagonist is absorbed into Lita’s family, and his serial moping and uncertainty—will bother some viewers. Kiley simply isn’t interested in that type of story, however.
It helps to recognize Brightest Star early on as a work of quarter-life portraiture, largely untethered to conventional romantic tension and payoffs. This can be seen in the relative ease with which Charlotte ditches her older boyfriend for this new guy, as well as Kiley’s nice use of montage technique in a later series of Charlotte’s arrivals home, which showcase the slow deflation of their relationship’s connection. The film’s smart and evocative technical packaging extends to its music, which is plugged into a certain mood of melancholic noodling without being officious. Composer Matthew Puckett’s work rests comfortably alongside songs from bands like Modern Superstition, Kosheen, Holy Folk, Sideway Runners and The Rival.
A modest but thoroughly engaging movie, Brightest Star captures a lot of what (admittedly privileged, or at least comfortable) twentysomething ennui feels like. And sometimes there’s warmth and value in such reflection.
Director: Maggie Kiley
Writers: Matthew Mullen & Maggie Kiley
Starring: Chris Lowell, Rose McIver, Jessica Szohr, Clark Gregg, Allison Janney, Peter Jacobson, Alex Kaluzhsky
Release Date: Jan. 31, 2014