Sometimes a movie comes out that feels like it should’ve premiered at Sundance. It’s a Sundance movie in spirit and execution, in its featherweight narrative, in a cast who are well-known to some but not many; in stirring up deep feelings of malaise and discontent because of just how competent it is while not being very good. Marmalade, the directorial debut from actor Keir O’Donnell—whose oeuvre mostly consists of supporting roles in things like Season 2 of Fargo and Paul Blart: Mall Cop—is one of many such cases.
Marmalade is the kind of just okay, middle-of-the-road, nearly inventive but still mostly derivative indie that at least has the decency to be only 90 minutes. This might sound harsh, but as it has often gone with the films I’ve seen out of Robert Redford’s beloved brainchild festival, it’s frustrating to watch a film that’s teetering on the verge of something decent but never quite gets there; whose best parts are merely reminiscent of the better films which form its entire groundwork.
Here, O’Donnell is trying to find his own footing by taking clear inspiration from the Coen brothers. Marmalade feels like the bastard child of Raising Arizona and Bonnie and Clyde, a love story about two heartsick dimwits willing to risk it all to be together and follow their American Dream. But there’s a catch, one that doesn’t reveal itself until too late in the narrative, and which attempts to push the film away from its otherwise imitative trappings and into ingenuity within the short span of maybe 20 minutes.
Prior to that, Marmalade follows Baron (Joe Keery), a soft-hearted simpleton who’s tossed in jail after a bank robbery gone awry. The first three-quarters of the film are in flashback, as Baron opines to his cellmate Otis (Aldis Hodge) about how his partner in crime, the love of his life, will be waiting for him with the money and the getaway car so long as Otis can help him escape. Otis begrudgingly allows Baron to tell him the entire story of the lovers’ meet-cute and eventual turn to crime, which began with Marmalade (Camila Morrone) manifesting in Baron’s life out of nowhere and choosing him as her next victim/loverboy.
A drifter who’s been in and out of foster homes her whole life, Marmalade touches down in Baron’s small town with her cherry red convertible looking for something new to sink her teeth into. She’s a pushy manic pixie dream girl who purports to truly love Baron while affectionately calling him her “puppet.” Marmalade doesn’t waste time seducing Baron, and the suggestible boy falls for her madly. Still, the only thing Baron really wants in life is to get the medication his sick mother needs, medication which keeps her alive and recently jumped to a price that Baron can no longer afford. The situation becomes especially dire after he’s let go from his Postal Service job for the transgression of “being unwilling to cut his long hair.” While he’s hesitant, it seems as if the only option is to indulge in Marmalade’s hair-brained scheme to rob a bank—a scheme with which she comes well-endowed with a suspicious amount of working knowledge.
The first twist in the story occurs roughly around midway, at which point it is revealed that Otis is not really an inmate. He’s an undercover cop, and he and his team are looking to finally nail Marmalade red-handed for two years’ worth of robberies she’s already committed. Baron, the patsy, is the one who’s ended up in jail and can thus unwittingly lure the cops to their real prize. Such a subversion initially relieves the film of some mimetic tension which, by then, starts to feel a bit exhausting; it feels as if we’ve done this all before.
But that twist is itself only the first, in a sort of mini-version of the Wild Things nesting doll of double-crosses and surprises. I won’t get into more spoilers than I already have, but all I’ll say is that there’s more to Baron and Marmalade than Baron has relayed to his fraudulent cellmate. Up to that point, however, the story is all too familiar, with some evident narrative and characterization flaws glaring through wide cracks.
O’Donnell and cinematographer Polly Morgan (The Woman King) know how to construct a series of propulsive shots (edited by Stewart Reeves) that pull Marmalade along at a brisk pace. But there’s an emptiness to their construction and to O’Donnell’s archetypal characters, which he attempts to disrupt through his twists alone.
Perhaps it’s part of the point that Marmalade is, at first, such an ideal outline of the manic pixie dream girl that we fall under the spell she’s casting. With her kooky outfits, pink hair and unpredictable personality, she could hang with Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Morrone, who recently co-starred in Daisy Jones and the Six and impressed me in Never Goin’ Back, is more than convincing. She is very clearly the star of the show, and she owns it believably. Keery is kind of adorable, though never wins us over with his gentle Southern drawl—that said, it’s nice to see the imprisoned Stranger Things children branching out and seeing the sunlight (Keery was much more impressive in his morally calamitous turn on Fargo).
It’s all almost clever…but not quite. O’Donnell wants to show us his inspirations and then prove that he’s moving beyond them with obvious narrative gotchas. But in order to do that, there needs to be far more creative buoyancy in the text, instead of only relying on surprises. A subversion of expectations isn’t enough. The story is too flimsy; the filmmaking is dynamic, but uninspired and unoriginal. There are nice images with nothing behind them. While O’Donnell clearly possesses skill, I’d be interested to see it put to better use in a more daring work. In another life, I sleepily watched Marmalade at nine in the morning on a frigid day in Park City, bookended by a series of films across several hours which blended together into one gumball of indistinguishable indie mush. Things are probably better in that universe.
Director: Keir O’Donnell
Writer: Keir O’Donnell
Starring: Joe Keery, Camila Morrone, Aldis Hodge
Release Date: February 9, 2024
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.