Review: ‘The Sunlit Night,’ starring Jenny Slate

July 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jenny Slate in “The Sunlit Night” (Photo by Eirik Evjen/Quiver Distribution)

“The Sunlit Night”

Directed by David Wnendt

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway and New York, the comedy/drama “The Sunlit Night” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A female struggling painter artist from New York City takes a job as an apprentice to a grouchy and famous male painter artist, who lives as a recluse in Norway.

Culture Audience: “The Sunlit Night” will appeal primarily to people who like independent films that have plenty of quirky characters but not much substance.

A scene from “The Sunlit Night,” with (in front row) Gillian Anderson (third from left), Alex Sharp (third from right), Zach Galifianakis (second from right) and Jenny Slate (far right). (Photo by Eirik Evjen/Quiver Distribution)

When it comes to live-action comedy/dramas or “dramedies” that Jenny Slate stars in, it’s time for her to move on from playing the type of “stuck in a rut” woman who’s still living with her parents or still trying to launch a career, long after most people have already figured out what they want to do with their lives. (See 2017’s “Landline” and 2014’s “Obvious Child,” which is still the best movie that Slate has starred in so far. )

The dreadfully bland comedy/drama “The Sunlit Night,” starring Slate (who is long past her 20s, even though she looks younger than her real age), is yet another independent comedic film where she plays someone who gets a rude awakening that she has to start living her life like a responsible adult. In “The Sunlit Night,” Slate (who is one of the film’s producers) plays the character of Frances “Fran” Cohen, a New York-based painter artist who’s struggling to make a living from her art. German director David Wnendt makes his English-language film debut with “The Sunlit Night.”

In the beginning of the movie, Frances has recently broken up with her boyfriend Robert (played by Dan Puck) whom she’s been comfortably living with in the Hamptons. It’s implied that Robert was taking care of all of Frances’ financial needs, because now that the relationship is over, she’s suddenly found herself broke and homeless.

Frances has to move back in with her parents—Levi (played by David Paymer) and Mirela (played by Jessica Hecht)—at their cramped New York City apartment. She doesn’t share the details with her family about what went wrong in the relationship with Robert (and it’s not mentioned in the movie at all), but Frances’ parents assume that Robert was the one who ended the relationship. That assumption annoys Frances, although she doesn’t correct them.

Frances isn’t just upset about her love life. Her career isn’t going so well either. The opening scene of the film shows three pretentious art critics evaluating one of Frances’ art pieces that’s hanging on a wall, and making it clear that they don’t think the piece is good enough. One of the critics describes Frances’ work “pedestrian,” as she sits uncomfortably in the room, listening to them as they give their negative reviews.

Frances has also recently gotten rejected for an artist residency in Tokyo. “Maybe I’m not an artist,” Frances says in a voiceover. “Maybe I’m just the daughter of two other artists.”

Frances’ mother Mirela (who designs upholstery textiles for well-to-do clients) and father Levi (who’s a medical illustrator) both make their livings as artists,  but they have opposite personalities. Mirela is nurturing and supportive, while Levi is quick-tempered and tactless. Frances’ younger sister Gabriella, nicknamed Gaby (played by Elise Kibler), also lives in the apartment.

One evening, while the family is having dinner together, Gabriella surprises them with the news that she’s gotten engaged. Frances is happy for her sister, but Levi and Mirela aren’t thrilled because they don’t like her fiancé Scott Glenny. (The movie doesn’t go into details over why the parents disapprove of this relationship.) Levi immediately ruins Gabrielle’s big news about her engagement by announcing that he and Mirela are separating and they’re selling the apartment.

Feeling like her life is falling apart (and also desperately needing a new place to live), Frances jumps at the chance to work for a famous but reclusive artist named Nils Auermann (played by Fridtjov Såheim) in the remote Arctic district of Lofoton in Nordland, Norway. It’s only a summer job, and Frances has been warned that Nils can be very demanding and difficult (he fired the previous person who had the job), but Frances takes the opportunity anyway to be Nils’ apprentice.

Nils is painting a yellow mural on a local Viking Museum’s abandoned barn. He’s entered the project into a national arts competition. And he needs someone to help him finish painting the barn. The apprentice who has the job is required to live on Nils’ property.

When Frances arrives at Nils’ place, she immediately sees why he has an unpleasant reputation. He’s a rude and very self-centered taskmaster. And he immediately tells Frances that they will have long work hours (from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), and that she will only be allowed to work on her own art in her own free time.

Frances’ living arrangements are also less-than-ideal: She has to live in a small, messy trailer. A previous tenant has written this message on the trailer cupboards: “Welcome to Hell,” as a warning of what’s to come. Frances not only has to deal with culture shock, but she also has to adjust to Arctic Norway’s environment of the sun never really setting, even at night.

Frances covers and paints over the trailer windows in order to get some sleep. And she has some unexpected company with a young goat that keeps showing up in her trailer. Despite Nils being such a cranky and gruff boss, Frances feels a little bit of kinship with him, because art critics have used the same words to describe Nils’ art and Frances’ art: “lazy, cold, not working.”

In the nearby Viking Village, Frances visits the Viking Museum and meets an eccentric named Haldor (played by Zach Galifianakis, in yet another weirdo role), who’s the museum’s manager and who insists that people call him Chief. Haldor/Chief isn’t from Norway. He’s actually an American from Cincinnati, but he considers himself to be an expert on Norwegian culture and history—so much so, that he’s always dressed in a Viking outfit, and he stars in the museum’s short history videos that are shown in the museum’s visitor screening room. Frances is slightly amused by Haldor/Chief, which is more amused than most people watching this movie will be by this insufferable Viking wannabe character.

Nils has color-coded how the barn should be painted, while Frances says in a voiceover she’s the type of artist who prefers finger paint. Because he is very particular on how he wants the barn to be painted, Nils and Frances inevitably clash. When Nils loses his temper with Frances over how she painted part of the barn (too sloppily, in his opinion), he grabs her arm and yells, “The barn is like a cathedral to me!” Frances immediately defends herself and shouts back, “Don’t touch me ever!”

Frances storms off to get some time away from her aggressive boss. But defending herself from his physical harassment is a turning point in her relationship with Nils, because he now knows that she’s no pushover. Later, he makes a semi-apology to Frances by telling her: “You and I are complete opposites, Frances. I am not used to people … But we complement each other.”

One day, while driving with Nils in his car on a deserted road, Frances sees a solemn-looking man, who’s around her age, wearing a black suit and walking with a suitcase on the road. Frances asks Nils if they can offer the man a ride, but Nils says no.

Frances sees the mysterious suit-clad man again at a local diner. She begins talking to him and tells him that she’s sure that she’s seen him before in New York. And by the way she looks at him, it’s obvious that she’s very attracted to him and interested in getting to know him better. This sad-looking man acts very aloof with her, and he rebuffs her attempts at a friendly conversation.

Frances sees him again later at the Viking Museum. And this time, she finds out who he is and why he’s in Norway. His name is Yasha (played Alex Sharp), and it turns out he really is from New York. Yasha is in Norway because his Russian immigrant father, whom he worked with at his father’s bakery in New York, has died, and Yasha is fulfilling his father’s wish to have a traditional Viking funeral in Norway.

And where is Yasha’s mother? Her name is Olyana, and she stayed in Russia, and never immigrated to the United States, as Yasha and his father had hoped. Yasha is very estranged from his mother, and he hasn’t invited her to the funeral. But that doesn’t stop Olyana (played by Gillian Anderson) from showing up anyway.

The biggest problem with “The Sunlit Night” is that it’s a lot duller than it should be. Galifianakis usually plays goofballs who are supposed to be annoying, but his Haldor/Chief character in this movie has no moments that are truly funny. It’s almost as if he’s there as filler. Anderson does a Russian accent that isn’t very convincing, while the Yasha character is just a grieving shell of a man, so he doesn’t have much of a personality.

The relationship between Frances and Nils, which is supposed to be the center of the story, seems devoid of anything memorable, except for the scene where they have a physical confrontation. There are a few pretentious moments when Frances namechecks some famous fine-art pieces in comparisons to her current life situation, but only art buffs will really appreciate some of these semi-humorous references. And even the “romance” scenes in the movie fall flat.

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight adapted “The Sunlit Night” from her 2015 novel of the same title. The book is based on her own “fish out of water” experiences as a New Yorker living in a remote part of Norway. But what works in a book doesn’t always work in a screenplay, since the pace of “The Sunlit Night” moves as slowly as a glacier moving through the Arctic.

An example of what’s wrong with this movie is how it mishandles a possible friendship between Frances and a bored Coop Prix supermarket worker (played by Luise Nes), whom Frances randomly meets at the supermarket in the frozen-food section. (This supermarket worker says he name is Kay, but she is identified in the film credits only as “Fridge Girl.”) Frances asks this young woman if she would like to pose for a painted portrait for Frances. Fridge Girl says yes, and immediately walks out of her job that day to go with Frances, without telling her boss or co-workers.

The next thing you know, Fridge Girl is posing nude for Frances in Frances’ dumpy trailer. Who does that? The movie never bothers to answer that question, because there’s no insight given into Fridge Girl’s character and why she’s the type of person to just impulsively walk out of a job to go with a stranger to pose for a nude portrait in a dingy trailer in the middle of nowhere.

Although the movie shows that Fridge Girl has posed for multiple nude portrait sessions for Frances, there’s no real inkling of what kind of conversations they might have had outside of those portrait sessions. Viewers don’t get to see the development of a possible friendship between the supermarket worker and Frances. Instead, viewers see more of Fridge Girl’s naked breasts than her personality.

Another thing about the movie that’s a missed opportunity is how little of Norwegian culture it shows, except for over-the-top Viking stereotypes that are played for laughs. Frances doesn’t seem very curious about getting to know other local artists who might live in the area, or even traveling in her free time outside of the stifling atmosphere of working with Nils. (Going to a local diner and a local grocery store doesn’t count.)

Maybe Frances’ lack of interest in exploring more of Norway is an example of how shallow she is or maybe how lazy the screenwriting is in not making the book more interesting for the movie. Conveniently, Frances’ “love interest” just happens to be a fellow New Yorker who’s in Norway. If you were to believe what’s presented in this movie, Norwegian men just aren’t interesting enough for Frances.

And did Frances really mature emotionally from this experience? What happens when her summer apprenticeship with Nils ends? Those questions are answered in the movie, but the conclusion isn’t particularly insightful.

Frances has the type of arrested-development lifestyle that might be somewhat cute when you’re in your 20s. But it’s not cute when you’re way past that age. If people want to see a comedy/drama film about a struggling female artist who recently broke up with her boyfriend, moves back in with her parents in their New York City apartment, and has a younger sister whose life is going more smoothly than hers, then writer/director/actress Lena Dunham already made that a much-better movie with “Tiny Furniture.”

Quiver Distribution released “The Sunlit Night” on digital and VOD on July 17, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Banana Split,’ starring Hannah Marks, Liana Liberto and Dylan Sprouse

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liana Liberato and Hannah Marks in “Banana Split” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Banana Split”

Directed by Benjamin Kasulke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy “Banana Split” has a predominantly young white cast of characters (with some African American and Asian representation) portraying middle-class teenagers.

Culture Clash: Two women in their late teens befriend each other, even though one of them is dating the other’s ex-boyfriend, and they agree to keep their friendship a secret from the boyfriend.

Culture Audience: “Banana Split” will appeal primarily to people who like female-oriented comedies that are entertaining and have adult humor.

Hannah Marks, Addison Riecke, Liana Liberato and Jessica Hect in “Banana Split” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Can you become best friends with the person who’s currently dating an ex-lover just a few months after the relationship ended? That’s the question posed in the breezy and somewhat raunchy comedy “Banana Split,” which has two women in their late teens going through this exact situation while hiding their friendship from the boyfriend. And making matters even more uncomfortable, the two women are also friends with the boyfriend’s best friend. If you’ve seen enough comedies like this one, then it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen, but the characters and the movie overall are so watchable and engaging that it’s an entertaining ride for most of the story.

The movie is told from the perspective of Los Angeles teenager April Krillholtz (played by Hannah Marks, who co-wrote the “Banana Split” screenplay with Joey Power), a brainy, neurotic type who’s a huge fan of “Harry Potter” and completely in love with Nicholas “Nick” Ellis (played by Dylan Sprouse), her high-school sweetheart of two years. A quick montage at the beginning of the film shows how April and Nick’s romance started and then began to deteriorate.

After having a platonic friendship, Nick and April decided that they wanted to start dating each other. But over time, their hot’n’heavy romance began to turn volatile, with a lot of arguing. (They even bickered during their prom date.)

And their relationship took a turn for the worst when they both got the news that they were accepted into universities on opposite coasts: Nick is staying on the West Coast to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, while April is headed to the East Coast for Boston University, on an academic scholarship. Apparently, April didn’t tell Nick that she had applied to a college in Boston, so when he finds out that she’s moving there, that’s the final nail in the coffin of their relationship, and they break up.

After graduating from high school, April is spending her summer working as a concessions employee at a movie theater. She’s the type of person who scolds a customer for ordering a hot dog because she thinks the customer is better off not letting “the smell of pig parts permeate the theater.” (In case it isn’t obvious, April doesn’t believe in eating meat.)

Before she moves away to go to Boston University, April is living at home with her divorced mother Susan (played by Jessica Hecht) and April’s foul-mouthed 13-year-old sister Agnes (played by Addison Riecke). Agnes has no sympathy for April’s breakup blues because Agnes makes it clear that she’s had a longtime crush on Nick and wants him for herself one day. Agnes also isn’t shy about describing her lust for Nick in explicit ways.

Agnes is the type of precocious teen who likes to talk about how much she knows about sex to shock or anger people (namely, her sister). The two siblings frequently get into immature, curse-filled shouting matches that’s kind of hilarious to watch. Their permissive mother Susan just wants to keep the peace while telling a little too much information about her own sex life. The dynamics between these three characters (who are usually only seen together around a dining room table) make for some of the best scenes in the movie. As the obnoxious and petulant Agnes, Riecke is a definite scene-stealer.

One night, April goes with two of her friends—Sally (played by Haley Ramm) and Molly (played by Meagan Kimberly Smith)—to a house party thrown by a fellow classmate. At the party, April gets very drunk because she knows, through social media, that Nick has already moved on to dating someone named Clara (played by Liana Liberato), a young woman who’s around the same age but who didn’t go to the same high school as April and Nick. In fact, April knows very little about Clara, and it bothers April that Nick was able to find a new girlfriend so quickly after their breakup.

But wouldn’t you know it, Clara is at the party too. Clara is not with Nick at the party, but she looks like she’s having fun and she’s being very social. April eyes Clara from a distance with jealousy and suspicion. And then, April is shocked to find out that Nick’s nerdy best friend Ben (played Luke Spencer Roberts) already knows Clara, because her parents are his godparents. (Stranger coincidences have happened in real life.) Ben has remained friendly with April after the breakup, and she understands that he’s still going to be Nick’s best friend. What she doesn’t like is for Ben to be friendly with Clara.

While an intoxicated April is hanging out by herself in a bedroom at the house, in walks Clara. The two have an awkward moment before Clara admits that she deliberately followed April into the room because she thought it was best that they finally meet. And it isn’t long before Clara and April begin hanging out at the party like long-lost friends.

They have such a good time together, that at the end of the night, Clara insists that April take her phone number. April asks, “What about Nick?” And Clara replies that Nick doesn’t have to know.

Meanwhile, when April tells Nick’s best friend Ben that Clara gave April her phone number, Ben (who senses that he’s going to be caught in the middle of this unusual arrangement) advises April not to become friends with Clara because it would be too weird and inappropriate. But, of course, there would be no “Banana Split” movie if April took that advice.

The first time that April and Clara hang out with each other, they go to a diner and have (you guessed it) a banana split together. The dessert can also be considered a metaphor for what their friendship turns out to be over the summer—sweet, kind of decadent and with a high probability of getting very messy.

The two women are almost opposites. College-bound April likes to plan ahead and has limited sexual experience. (She lost her virginity to Nick, who’s the only guy she’s had sex with so far.) Clara, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Fresno with no set plans, is more of a free-spirit, is more sexually experienced (Clara tells April that she’s had sex with 14 guys in her life so far), and is not as book-smart as April is.

The movie hints that their relationship could have turned sexual, when during one of their first hangouts together, Clara asks April if she wants to make out with her.  But April tells Clara that she’s not interested because she’s definitely heterosexual, and the subject is never brought up again.

“Banana Split” has a lot of montages of April and Clara doing things like going to the beach together, getting high together (mostly by smoking marijuana), and going out for meals together—not exactly the best way to keep their friendship a secret. Los Angeles is a big city, but there’s still a chance that other mutual friends of Nick and April (other than Ben) would find out.

During one of the first times that Clara and April spend time together, they end up talking about Nick’s sexual techniques, but that conversation quickly turns awkward when Clara finds out that Nick said things to April that he never said to her. April and Clara decide that the other big rule in their friendship (besides not telling Nick about their friendship) will be not to talk about Nick with each other.

To hide their friendship, they also agree not to post photos of themselves together on social media. And when April calls Clara, she shows up in Clara’s phone under the alias “Brad Pitt,” in reference to a joke that April made about Pitt’s movie “Fight Club.” (The reference to Pitt is kind of ironic, since Sprouse in “Banana Split” looks a lot like Pitt looked when he had long hair in the 1994 movies “Legends of the Fall” and “Interview With the Vampire.”)

The first time that April and Clara tell each other, “You’re my best friend,” is after they’ve checked into a motel together to get away from their routines and end up tripping on LSD together. And their relationship goes to the next friendship level when Clara, who has no family members in the area, asks April if she could meet her family. (You can imagine how dinner with April’s family goes, as long as bratty Agnes is there.)

Meanwhile, Ben knows all about April and Clara’s friendship. A great deal of what his character is all about is Ben nervously trying to keep the friendship a secret from Nick, while also scolding April and Clara about keeping it a secret from Nick.

Most of the characters in “Banana Split” are very defined in their personalities, but Nick is somewhat of a blank slate. It isn’t really made clear what his interests and goals are in life and what kind of family he has, so who he is as a person seems kind of vague throughout the movie.

What viewers do see of Nick is that he’s not your average pretty boy. For example, he has certain quirks, such as that he’s a fan of “Call Me Maybe” pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen and he shares April’s nerdy fandom of “Harry Potter.” But in other ways, he’s very much like a typical teenage guy who just wants to party.

“Banana Split” is the feature-film directorial debut of Benjamin Kasulke, who hits a lot of familiar beats that we’ve seen before in movies with female teenagers as the main characters. There’s the alternative-pop soundtrack (“Banana Split” features several songs written and performed by Annie Hart), the house party scene where one of the girls gets drunk and ends up vomiting, and the scene where a supposedly responsible character does something irresponsible just for the hell of it. (In “Banana Split,” Clara convinces April to leave her work shift two hours early just to hang out with her.)

But because the movie is so well-cast (Marks and Liberato give very convincing performances as opposite women who become fast friends), it makes these well-worn teen-comedy tropes enjoyable to watch. “Banana Split” is capably directed by Kasulke, and the movie benefits from the genuinely funny screenplay by Marks and Power.

And what about this story’s love triangle? Is Nick really over April? Are Nick and Clara falling in love, or is she just a fling before he leaves for college? And will he find out that April and Clara have become friends behind his back? The movie answers those questions, even though it’s pretty obvious that the real love story of “Banana Split” is the friendship that develops between April and Clara.

Vertical Entertainment released “Banana Split” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020.