Nobody Walks review
From the Sundance Film Festival, London
Nobody walks in L.A., so the saying goes. None of its residents need to, as they all own shiny cars for transport: offering a mix of luxury and convenience that is just too tempting. Ry Russo-Young’s latest feature Nobody Walks, attempts to appropriate this analogy toward matters of life, love and relationships. Typical Sundance fare then? Not exactly. Even if the themes are stereotypical of the festival, other Sundance titles demonstrate much more subtlety and complexity.
Plot-wise, Nobody Walks treads classic femme fatale territory. Martine (Olivia Thirlby) is a 23 year old design student creating a short film about bugs to symbolise human behaviour. In order to finish the project, soundscapes need to be added; and it is here that paths cross with sound-mixer Peter (John Krasinki); husband to Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), and step father to sixteen year old Kolt (India Ennega), a poet in the making and her baby brother, Dusty. Recently signed to a big Hollywood production, Peter has refurbished his home studio, and so invites Martine to stay and work with him at the family home over the summer. Her arrival sparks a surge of energy that awakens suppressed impulses in everyone. As such, the film looks to raise questions about sexual desire, commitment and the cohesion of the family unit when the equilibrium is disturbed.
If only the script and the character development matched up to the potential in the premise. The biggest problem is that it is difficult to empathise with, or feel any warmth toward the characters, who are self-absorbed, unappreciative and pretentious. Martine is the kind of girl who would make a young Blanch DuBois blush; she uses her sexuality to satisfy a deep rooted craving for attention, as much as to get what she wants, all without a genuine thought or care for who she hurts. Rather than take a bus from the airport, she seduces a man on the plane and gets him to drive her to Peter’s house as a final favour. It’s all ok though, because, you know, she’s just one of those alternative arty types, armed with the polaroid camera, Ray-Bans, faux leather jacket and elfish haircut to prove it. Excuse me while I groan with displeasure.
Fortunately for Martine, she hits the jackpot with Peter and Julie, who share the same supposedly free spirited outlook. However, once again the script relies on clichés to emphasise this. We are introduced to Julie’s experimental past by Martine swooning, ‘you’re the famous feminist author…it’s an honour, it must have been such an exciting time’. Elsewhere, the unconventionality of the family is characterised by the fact that they have ‘take out’ nights, where Kolt is supposed to make dinner for herself from the ‘take out bowl’. Oh it’s so desperately new age, it hurts. Of course, it is a lot easier to maintain this veneer when you live in a spacious modern home up in Beverley Hills, with non-stop sun and a huge pool in the backyard to cool off in. Peter even has a surfer boy assistant, David (Rhys Wakefield), to sort out the big challenges in life, like fetching milk from the supermarket or removing a dead lizard blocking the pool drain. ‘He just gets on with it’ he says adorningly to Martine, with a look of puzzled admiration.
It turns out the similarities are also idiosyncratic, in that the family members and those connected to them likewise suffer from Martine’s inability to respect boundaries, resist temptation or refrain from nymphomaniac behaviour. Somehow, Martine fails to register all the hospitality shown to her and chooses to indulge: failing to show up at the studio on time for the first day of voice-over work, because she couldn’t help having a casual first night fling with David (in the family car, no less). Unbeknownst to them, the sexually blossoming Kolt, who harbours a teenage crush on David, watches all this from her window. This marks the first of a number of love triangles which quickly turn hexagonal.
Despite Peter’s adulation about her great talent, when Martine does finally get to work, she doesn’t seem particularly good at that either, unable to convey her ideas to the actors, who eventually lose their temper. In response, Martine (somewhat satisfyingly) runs to the toilet crying. Peter follows to console her, yet ends up inexplicably giving in to her seduction without a second thought. In less than 24 hours, Martine has had her way with both men of the house. Meanwhile, Julie, now a psychologist for the rich and famous, finds herself battling the erotic overtones made by one of her patients, Patrick (Justin Kirk). The tension builds that evening, when she antagonises Peter by inviting her ex-husband, Leroy (Dylan McDermott) over for dinner, revelling in the extent both men go to impress her. In bed, she later has the audacity to chastise Peter for ‘embarrassing her’ by focusing on Martine at the dinner table.
The lunacy of lust reaches its peak when the family, including Martine, attend a local party. Julie witnesses Peter and Martine getting close; in fact he’s already asking her to move to the area, but she turns him down. Consequently, when Julie happens to bump into Patrick, she invites his advances in a calculated fashion, before cutting him off at the crucial moment. By this time Martine has escaped with David to get her kicks, whilst Kolt, having learnt from the best in the business, finds her best friend, a wannabe Woody Allen who is madly in love with her, and cynically uses him to boost her fragile ego.
It is this dearth of realism, coupled with vague character construction propelled by the stilted dialogue, which undermines the film’s ambitions. Although Russo-Young, and co-screenwriter Lisa Dunham successfully manage to open up doors, they fail to walk inside and expose themselves, or the viewer, to the more complex dimensions that appear. By creating a world full of such unrelatable personalities, who make equally ill constructed decisions, it is impossible to emotionally engage. Simply, the gap between style and substance is too great. The reason why films of the same ilk, such as The Kids Are All Right, work is because at some level they connect with our world. Even if the characters are wealthy and sun-soaked, there remains some degree of humility and humanity. Sadly, there is none to be found here.
This is all the more disappointing, given that the non-verbal tension is built quite well, strengthened by the bold cinematography provided by Chris Blauvelt. Throughout, the foggy heat of sexuality is never too far way, thanks to carefully crafted camera-work. Particularly impressive is the scene where Peter and Martine finally make love, the situational aspect of their close proximity in the studio exploited to great effect. John Walter also does an excellent job of editing the scene, cutting between the explosion going on within soundproofed studio and the everyday activities of the other family members around the house. Undeniably vivid and arresting, it makes you wonder what could have been if only the same level of ingenuity existed in other areas.
As it is, we are left with little more than a infuriating and nauseating vanity fair. Although Kolt’s character provides some texture, this is undone towards the end when, after challenging her Italian tutor’s perversions toward her, through a poem she chooses to read to him, he loses control and calls her a prostitute. Fortuitously, Martine arrives to save the day and the pair subsequently bond, with Martine encouraging Kolt, explaining she is an attractive young girl who should make the best of this, without regret.
Attitudes like this are symptomatic of the people I spent half my teenage years trying to emulate and the other half trying to avoid. They pose, strut, and play the part, but under it all exhibit zero personality. By the same token, you can’t find subtext in a film, if at its core, it has nothing to say. If nobody nobody walks in L.A., the same can be said for film-making.
Rating: 4 out of 10