Review: ‘The Nowhere Inn,’ starring St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein

October 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein in “The Nowhere Inn” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nowhere Inn”

Directed by Bill Benz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities, the comedy/drama mockumentary “The Nowhere Inn” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Experimental pop singer St. Vincent has conflicts with her best friend Carrie Brownstein, who has been hired to direct a documentary about St. Vincent. 

Culture Audience: “The Nowhere Inn” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars St. Vincent and Brownstein, as well as to people who enjoy unusual mockumentaries.

St. Vincent in “The Nowhere Inn” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nowhere Inn” rambles, falters, and sometimes gets too meta for its own good. But it’s got enough quirky satire of celebrity documentaries to bring some laughs. You don’t have to be a fan of stars St. Vincent or Carrie Brownstein to enjoy “The Nowhere Inn,” but it might help during the parts of the movie where the pace tends to drag. Mostly, “The Nowhere Inn” is commendable for its attempt to be an original mockumentary, even if some of the comedy doesn’t serve the story very well.

In “The Nowhere Inn,” experimental pop singer St. Vincent (whose real name is Annie Clark) and Brownstein (a former star of the 2011-2018 comedy series “Portlandia”) portray versions of themselves and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay. Many parts of the movie look semi-improvised. “The Nowhere Inn” is the feature-film directorial debut of Bill Benz, a former editor, director and co-producer of “Portlandia.” People who are familiar with “Portlandia” should expect a similar tone to “The Nowhere Inn,” which brings an absurdist and deadpan spin to realistic situations.

“The Nowhere Inn” is a mockumentary within a mockumentary. On one level, it’s about the character of Carrie being convinced by her best friend St. Vincent to direct a tour documentary about St. Vincent. Footage from the documentary takes up most of the movie. But on another level, parts of the movie includes hindsight commentary from Carrie and St. Vincent about the documentary, whose production went through a lot of turmoil when the two pals became at odds with each other.

Interspersed with the off-stage footage is a lot of concert footage of St. Vincent. And so, the vast majority of the music in the movie is St. Vincent’s music. St. Vincent songs that are featured in “The Nowhere Inn” are “Year of the Tiger,” “Smoking Section,” “Pills,” “New York,” “Savior,” “Palm Desert,” “Los Ageless” and “Hang on Me.”

Because the experimental/alternative musical style of St. Vincent is so intertwined with the movie, “The Nowhere Inn” is not going to appeal to large masses of people, especially people who prefer more conventional films. However, people who know about the stereotypes of authorized celebrity tour documentaries will find parts of the movie amusing in how “The Nowhere Inn” makes a mockery of these clichés.

The movie opens with St. Vincent as a passenger in the back of limo, where an unnamed middle-aged driver (played by Ezra Buzzington) tells her that he knows that she’s famous for something, but he isn’t shy about telling her that he’s not sure what her claim to fame is: “I drive a lot of famous people,” he says. “I’ve never heard you before.”

While he’s driving, the limo driver calls his son, who’s an aspiring musician in a band, and talks to his son on speaker phone. He asks his son if he’s heard of St. Vincent. The son says no, but he mentions that he’s in a band and wonders out loud if St. Vincent could possibly help him in his music career. During this awkward conversation, she is gracious and humble and doesn’t expect to be treated like a star.

The limo driver then asks St. Vincent to sing one of her songs, to see if his son will recognize the song. St. Vincent sings “New York,” and when she gets to the part of the song where the line is “you’re the only motherfucker in the city,” the driver’s son sounds offended and asks, “Whoa! Did she just say ‘MF’?” The driver then abruptly ends the call and tells St. Vincent, “Don’t worry. We’ll find out who you are.”

The driver doesn’t really get a chance though because the limo stops shortly afterward. When St. Vincent gets out of the limo to see what’s going on, she finds that the driver’s door is open and he’s nowhere in sight. What happened to the driver and where did he go? Don’t expect any answers because it’s an example of some of the random weirdness in the movie.

St. Vincent is then seen on screen talking about the unfinished documentary that she made with Carrie as the director. St. Vincent comments, “All I can say is that things went terribly wrong.” The majority of “The Nowhere Inn” shows flashbacks to the making of the untitled documentary. Viewers are supposed to get a sense that what they are seeing is previously unreleased footage.

At first, filming of the documentary goes very well, as Carrie is given almost complete creative control. Carrie’s only request for St. Vincent is “Just be yourself” because the documentary is supposed to be a “fly on the wall experience.” St. Vincent’s shows are well-attended and she has plenty of adoring fans.

In the “hindsight” footage, St. Vincent says, “It was supposed to be a music documentary … I guess I wanted people to know who I am. I don’t want it to be a random fantasy. I wanted it to be intimate and revealing.”

But how intimate and how revealing? And more importantly to Carrie: How truthful? Over time, St. Vincent’s ego takes over, and she wants to turn the documentary into a series of staged scenes that fabricate aspects of her life. How much of a dictator does St. Vincent become during the making of the documentary? At one point in the movie, she tells Carrie: “From now on, I need more say in how other people are going to act.”

When did St. Vincent go from being a down-to-earth singer to a bossy diva? The turning point comes when a print journalist named Holly (played by Rya Kihlstedt) interviews St. Vincent while the documentary cameras are rolling. During the interview, Holly becomes distracted because her live-in girlfriend has broken up with Holly by text during the interview.

Holly is so distraught that she drags St. Vincent into this breakup mess by asking St. Vincent to call her now-ex-girlfriend and leave a voice mail to try convince the ex that Holly is not only a good person but the best thing that ever happened to the ex. It puts St. Vincent in a very awkward position, but she obliges, in order to be polite.

After manipulating St. Vincent to get involved in her personal life, Holly then cuts the interview short, as if she’s done using St. Vincent for the day. Before this annoying journalist leaves, Holly complains to St. Vincent that Holly wasn’t given a “plus one” (to get an extra ticket) when Holly was put on the guest list for the St. Vincent concert happening later that evening.

Holly says that her cousin Sarah is a fan of St. Vincent and tells St. Vincent that she’d like Sarah to be her “plus one.” St. Vincent tries not to act offended by the disrespectful way that Holly has been acting, but this entire uncomfortable interaction was caught on the documentary’s cameras. Later, when St. Vincent sees Holly and Sarah (played by Cass Buggé) at a concert after-party, the shift in St. Vincent’s attitude becomes very clear.

St. Vincent suddenly wants to do a documentary that will make her look more interesting. In one of the funnier scenes in the movie, St. Vincent introduces Carrie to her lover Dakota Johnson (playing a version of herself), while St. Vincent and Dakota are clad in lingerie and lounging on a bed together. (St. Vincent is openly queer in real life.) And the next thing you know, St. Vincent wants Carrie to film a sex video of Dakota and St. Vincent, right then and there.

An embarrassed Carrie tries to stall and suggests that they get an intimacy coordinator before filming the scene. However, St. Vincent says it’s not necessary because she and Dakota won’t be faking it. There’s no actual sex or nudity in “The Nowhere Inn,” because the movie wants what isn’t shown in this sex scene to be more amusing than what could be shown.

Another hilarious scene in the movie is when Carrie decides to go over to some St. Vincent fans who are standing in line outside the concert venue and randomly invites a young adult fan to go back with her to St. Vincent’s dressing room. The fan, whose name is Kim (played by Gabriela Flores), is overwhelmed by this surprise and bursts into tears when she sees St. Vincent in person. Kim predictably fawns over St. Vincent and tells St. Vincent that her music saved Kim’s life.

Kim tells St. Vincent that Kim’s boyfriend from high school gave St. Vincent’s 2011 album “Strange Mercy” to Kim as a birthday present. The boyfriend tragically died in a car accident two nights before their graduation. Kim says that St. Vincent’s music has helped Kim through tough times when she was feeling depressed and didn’t want to live anymore.

This sad story makes St. Vincent cry too. And she cries so much about how much the story affected her that Kim ends up comforting St. Vincent in the dressing room. It’s an amusing parody of how narcissistic celebrities can somehow make a fan’s personal tragedy all about the celebrity.

During the course of the documentary, St. Vincent becomes obsessed with wanting to appear humble and relatable in front of the cameras. But behind the scenes, she becomes a egomaniacal tyrant and almost starts acting like the documentary’s director. St. Vincent goes as far as fabricating a backstory for herself. She pretends that she grew up on a Texas ranch with a big family, and she hires actors to play these roles.

As Carrie says early on in the movie, St. Vincent is really an only child whose father is in prison. This is a plot hole in “The Nowhere Inn,” because in this Internet age, it would be hard for a celebrity such as St. Vincent to hide her family background and get away with hiring a cast of actors to portray her family in what’s supposed to be documentary. That’s why “The Nowhere Inn” takes a misstep toward the end of the movie when St. Vincent goes through an entire charade of trying to look like a Texas cowgirl from a large family.

Not surprisingly, Carrie is increasingly put off by St. Vincent trying to make a phony documentary. Carrie finds herself sidelined as a director and not being consulted on important decisions. Carrie quits the documentary at least once, which isn’t spoiler information, since St. Vincent says in the beginning of the movie that the documentary hasn’t been completed.

During all of this friendship turmoil, Carrie is also dealing with the fact that her unnamed father (played by Michael Bofshever) is dying of cancer. He’s very proud that she’s directing this documentary, and she feels obligated to finish the film so that he won’t be disappointed in her. Meanwhile, St. Vincent seems oblivious and insensitive to Carrie’s stress over her father’s health condition.

“The Nowhere Inn” includes some footage of the people in St. Vincent’s entourage, including her band members: eccentric Japanese bass player Toko (played by Toko Yasuda); “nice guy” Australian guitarist Neil (played by Chris Aquilino); and party-loving American drummer Robert (played by Drew Connick). St. Vincent’s easygoing tour manager Brian (played by Kash Abdulmalik) also gets some screen time.

However, these supporting characters don’t add much the story. “The Nowhere Inn” is really about how Carrie and St. Vincent’s once-solid friendship becomes turbulent because of disagreements over the documentary. In the production notes for “The Nowhere Inn,” it’s mentioned that Brownstein and Clark were both influenced by two movies about jaded pop stars: directors Nicolas Roeg’s and Donald Cammell’s 1970 drama “Performance” (starring Mick Jagger) and director Peter Watkins’ 1967 mockumentary “Privilege,” starring Paul Jones.

Taking cues from both of those movies, “The Nowhere Inn” has some psychedelic-looking surrealistic sequences that aren’t quite hallucinations, but they’re nevertheless part of the line blurring of reality and fiction that this mockumentary intends to spoof. “The Nowhere Inn” is at its most potent in its satire when it pokes fun at the image-obsessed trap that many celebrities fall into when they achieve a certain level of fame.

What’s less effective are the aforementioned fake Texas family scenes and the movie’s tendency to over-rely on making Carrie look like a forlorn doormat who’s shocked by what goes on during St. Vincent’s concert tour. By making Carrie so naïve in this movie, it just leads viewers to wonder how well Carrie really knows her “best friend” St. Vincent. And the subplot about Carrie’s father having cancer is a clumsy fit for this story.

Brownstein has her own real-life experiences as a music artist (she’s a singer/guitarist in the rock band Sleater-Kinney), but that background is completely erased in the movie. It would’ve been more interesting if the Carrie character had been written as someone who has experience being in a semi-famous band and is therefore better-equipped to handle St. Vincent’s egotistical shenanigans during the tour. Their arguments would’ve been more entertaining to watch.

“The Nowhere Inn” is a flawed but unique film that is going to interest some people and turn off other people. People who know what showbiz is like behind the scenes will find at least something to laugh at in “The Nowhere Inn,” even if those laughs might be occasional for some viewers. The movie is not meant to have a joke in every scene. “The Nowhere Inn” won’t be considered a classic mockumentary, but it’s worth a watch if viewers are willing to go on a sometimes bizarre but very original ride in an alternate reality created by Brownstein and St. Vincent.

IFC Films released “The Nowhere Inn” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on September 17, 2021.