With 2009’s Humpday, about two heterosexual males who find themselves locked into a mutual dare pact to make a gay pornographic film together, writer-director Lynn Shelton achieved career liftoff at the Sundance Film Festival. Putting a canted tinfoil crown on the so-called mumblecore genre, the movie—with its provocative conceit, low-fi vibe and largely improvised dialogue—was sort of a bubble-universe zeitgeist hit among cineastes, despite only grossing just over $400,000 when it eventually saw theatrical release and never expanding past 27 theaters.
Her follow-up film, Your Sister’s Sister, further confirmed Shelton’s gifts with laid-back observational cinema, even if it didn’t prove to be a box office hit. Last year’s Touchy Feely, meanwhile, about a massage therapist who’s stricken with a sudden aversion to bodily contact, felt like a meandering caricature of indie movie navel-gazing. Laggies, then, feels very much like a concerted stab at broader relevance—sometimes in awkward fashion though never really in an offensively broad way. It leans into coming-of-age and romantic dramedy genre tropes, but fiddles around with them in a mostly pleasing manner.
After all, comedies of arrested development, young adult fumbling and other manner of ennui are a certain stock base for not only indie films, from Garden State to Away We Go, but mainstream movies, too, like Failure to Launch and all those rom-coms of wish fulfillment where there’s usually at least one bro character who, like, learns to overcome his reluctance to settle down and stuff, man. Laggies, however, takes on a lot of these characteristics—most typically ascribed to men—and ports them over to a female protagonist, in engaging if sometimes scantly psychologically insightful fashion.
The film centers on Meg (Keira Knightley), a college graduate wasting her higher education. Reeling from the one-two punch of a marriage proposal by her longtime boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) that she’s still not sure she’s ready for and also seeing her father, Ed (Jeff Garlin), making out with a random woman at the wedding of her friend, Allison (Ellie Kemper), Meg wanders off into the night. She’s approached by 16-year-old Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), who’s looking to have Meg buy some beer for her and her friends. Meg acquiesces, and then bonds with Annika and her pals over skateboarding.
The next day she does Annika another favor and, seeking the refuge of a simpler time in life, her invitation to hang out more and spend the night. Anikka’s father, lawyer Craig (Sam Rockwell), is rightly dubious about the strange, new and pronouncedly older friend of his daughter, and grills Meg about her life. Meg provides some half-truths which satisfy his curiosity and so there she stays for a couple days, checking out from her real life. In the process, Meg begins to question her relationship with Anthony and wonder if she has feelings for Craig.
Laggies, scripted by Andrea Seigel, isn’t quite rooted in FOMO-dom (“Fear of missing out”), and some of its stabs at narrative grandeur—including a visit to Annika’s estranged mom, Bethany (Gretchen Mol)—don’t really connect. But it has feeling, and compares in tenor if not quite quality to the criminally underrated Hello I Must Be Going, which saw Melanie Lynskey’s foundering thirtysomething divorcee coping with the dissolution of her marriage by returning to her adolescent home and striking up a relationship with a 19-year-old guy. Laggies examines the same mechanisms of psychological retreat, but with less convincing perspicacity. It’s often funny, but doesn’t have the same sting of knowing truthfulness.
Shelton has the ability to coax extraordinarily relaxed, naturalistic performances out of her actors and actresses, and that’s where Laggies really succeeds. It gives a smart nudge to the oddness of its conceit (“Please don’t let this decision become bad parenting on my part,” says Craig to Meg before leaving her alone in his home for the first time), and Knightley and Rockwell, especially, rise to the occasion to help sell the material. The latter has already evidenced a rich talent for loquaciousness, and here he puts a nice, charming spin on the sort of character—sardonic yet a bit world-weary, and wounded—that is the flip side of his penchant for scenery-chewing goofballs. Knightley was swallowed up by the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but here she’s loose-limbed and fantastically watchable; the contemporary nature of the material really suits her.
Less successful are some of the supporting characters. Given the thankless task of trying to locate meaning in her one scene, Mol stumbles; Kemper (The Office), meanwhile, really struggles to find a human dimension at all, over-dialing the confrontational “frenemy” bitchiness by at least two-thirds. She’s in a different movie altogether, and one begins to wish she would stay there, no matter the fact that her scenes are relatively prescribed.
Technically, Shelton has improved with each film. Benjamin Gibbard, of Death Cab for Cutie, offers up an evocative score. And with the assistance of cinematographer Benjamin Kalsulke and production designer John Lavin, Shelton crafts a film that feels intimate and to-scale.
Finally, though, there’s the matter of Laggies’ chosen catharses, which for the most part ring hollow or phony in their staging. Without ruining anything, it’s hard to find purchase in Meg’s decision-making. Meanwhile, Annika is given a moment of confession and triumph at her prom that utterly destroys the dignity of an incidental character. It’s small, but a damning detail that undercuts the sort of humanity Shelton otherwise takes such great care to cultivate. The characters in Laggies are interesting, but they feel caught between real behavior and cinematic contrivance.
Director: Lynn Shelton
Writer: Andrea Seigel (screenplay)
Starring: Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Mark Webber, Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin, Gretchen Mol
Release Date: October 24 (Los Angeles, New York)
Entertainment journalist Brent Simon is a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.