Lynn Shelton is one of those directors that audiences don’t know by name yet, but actors and industry types sure do. And there’s a reason for that: she’s under-the-radar fantastic. In a featurette for her latest film, Laggies (titled Say When in the UK), Jeff Garlin, who plays the father of Keira Knightley’s character, says straight out, “I did this movie strictly because of Lynn Shelton.”
Shelton’s has a relatively short yet varied filmography, as she has taken on the roles of actor, director, writer, producer, editor, and cinematographer throughout her career. She has directed for television (New Girl, The Mindy Project) and has autuered a handful of acute, underappreciated films (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister, Touchy Feely). But Laggies is her most commercial project yet, and with an engaging script from first-time screenwriter Andrea Seigel, Shelton proves herself not only worthy of A-list attention, but demanding of it.
Because, let’s be real: Laggies is yet another “not-your-typical-coming-of-age-story” that could have easily floundered in less capable hands. The plot also would have been super creepy with the gender roles reversed (a 28-year-old man hanging out with a teenage boy and having slumber parties? Without the conceit of Big, no way does that fly). But what’s interesting about Shelton’s film is the tweaking of tropes, and how the main character, thanks to considerate writing, acting and direction, is more empathetic than she is pathetic.
Usually, arrested development narratives are either centered around stunted man-children (Stepbrothers, Failure to Launch) or aimless early-twentysomethings straight out of college (Reality Bites, The Graduate). In contrast, Knightley’s Megan is almost 30, overeducated, and underemployed, and her regression back into an adolescent state is triggered by a surprise proposal from high school sweetheart Anthony (Mark Webber), forcing her to take stock of her inert situation and wonder, What the hell am I doing with my life? And in a way, that’s more understandable than simply being lazy or immature. Being averse to change is a relatable plight, and when life feels like it’s moving too fast, too soon, it’s natural to want to brake or even reverse to avoid moving forward. Megan isn’t slacking just for ennui’s sake; she is actually terrified of what’s next.
Through an admittedly farfetched turn of events, Megan finds a safe haven for her quarter-life crisis in the home of 16-year-old Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her divorced single father Craig (Sam Rockwell). But Megan’s new setup shows off a winning trio, which might not have worked as well without these specific actors playing off each other.
Moretz is perfectly cast as a sharp-tongued teen hiding a softer side, complimenting Knightley’s more open-faced approach. Rockwell continues what I like to call The Rockwell Effect, in that he is the sly, reliable high point of every film that is lucky enough to have him (“Wow,” he quips upon meeting Megan, “High school students are looking rougher and rougher these days”). And Knightley is surprisingly convincing as our stalled heroine, proving that she can play quirky contemporary characters just as well as the icier types from the corset period dramas and swashbucklers from which she is best known.
Although anyone encountering Knightley in real life would be dazzled by her flawless face—huge almond eyes offset by a patrician nose and impossibly high cheekbones—she is somehow believable here, her movie star quality belied by an adequate American accent, much improved from her first try in 2005’s The Jacket, and a genuine warmth to her interactions with Moretz and Rockwell. What I’ve always liked most about Knightley is the generosity and sheer passion that comes through for her scene partners, even when is playing a character that is more chilly and aloof. Think about it: she always has strong chemistry with her co-leads, from Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham to James McAvoy in Atonement to Steve Carrell in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (yes, really!), and much of that is her doing. Her rapport with Rockwell is no exception; in fact, their quizzical back-and-forth is the film’s highlight.
Distributed by burgeoning indie giant A24 (Obvious Child, The Spectacular Now), scored by Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie, The Postal Service), and grounded in lovely work from a first-rate cast, Laggies has a lot going for it, and for the most part, delivers on its promise of freshness over formula. A few hiccups in the narrative aside, this is a shrewd little dramedy directed by a woman, written by a woman and told from a woman’s perspective, which on those merits alone constitutes a rare and special film worth seeing.