'Broken English'

Gena Rowlands

A wry, charming romance about a New York woman who has given up hope of finding love, or even a decent night out, Zoe Cassavetes' debut feature "Broken English" stars Parker Posey as Nora Wilder, whose middle to late 30s have bottomed out in a rut of aimless socializing, boring work and generalized anxiety. On furlough from playing the cartoonish loose cannon, the always-riveting and criminally underused Posey gives a beautifully calibrated performance, possibly her most realized and multidimensional to date.

Nora is the guest services director at a boutique hotel, where she spends her days catering to other people's whims. Her best friend, Audrey (Drea de Matteo) is half-heartedly married to the man Nora's mother Vivien (Gena Rowlands, the director's mother in real life) thinks Nora let get away. After a fling with an actor leads to a humiliating letdown, Nora follows her mother's advice to "go everywhere, even when you don't feel like it." Braving a goony co-worker's party, she meets a Frenchman in a straw fedora who shares her bad luck in love but not her distrust of it.

Julien (Melvil Poupaud) and Nora spend a weekend knocking around the city, which couldn't be more enjoyable to watch. Nora unfurls, retracts, stumbles and panics while the laid-back Julien remains, unbelievably in her eyes, calmly by her side. The title refers not only to the slight language barrier — Nora hears Julien's "I'm hungry" as "I'm angry" — but also to her eroded trust. Nora's relationships with her mother, a loopy and formidable source of support and pressure, and her best friend are nuanced and true to life.

Shot on location in New York and Paris, "Broken English" avoids familiar landmarks as assiduously as Cassavetes' script avoids the usual single girl clichés. A simple, empathetic script and calm, assured directing display a level of emotional honesty and character development that's confoundingly rare these days, especially when it comes to female characters.

From the first scene, in which Nora gets ready to go to Audrey's anniversary party, she draws us into the character's life without so much as a word. The scene invites you to enter an inner world that extends well beyond the small rooms and similar days she inhabits. With no bigger, or less formidable, foes than her shyness and insecurity, Nora eventually embarks on a series of solitary adventures in Paris. Her adventures may seem like no big deal, but much like trusting that we'll want to spend time with an ordinary, well-observed character, it feels like something brave.

carina.chocano@latimes.com

"Broken English." MPAA rating: R for language, violence and some drug content. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.; Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino; Playhouse 7 Cinemas, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; South Coast Village 3, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana.

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