PARK CITY, Utah — Dramatic comedies about twentysomething women at various life crossroads has become something of a mini-genre in the last few years, with screen entertainment such as “Girls,” “The Bachelorette” and last year’s art-house breakout “Frances Ha.”
Mostly these stories are set in crowded urban environments, necessitating the high rents, low wages and multiple roommates that make for dramatic combustion. They rarely involve pastoral, lawn-friendly settings. Nor do they tend to come in the form of a woman living with her long-term boyfriend.
Both conventions are broken in "Laggies," Lynn Shelton’s new movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, which is notable right off the bat for its against-type casting of Keira Knightley as the professionally and personally frustrated American-girl-next-door.
Though living with her high-school sweetheart in a multistory condo in an upscale Seattle neighborhood, Knightley’s Meg, at 28, is feeling a little thwarted by her career (she earned a graduate degree in family therapy but doesn’t use it) and prissy, get-thee-to-the-altar friends.
For reasons too complicated to explain (for her, too), Meg temporarily leaves her mostly cushy life to bunk with a mature-but-not-irksomely-precocious teenager (Chloe Grace Moretz), said teenager’s single dad (Sam Rockwell, in rapid-fire witty form that evokes his winning turn in “The Way Way Back”) and said teenager’s high-school friends. Soon Meg become entangled in their lives and begins reconnecting with a high-school self she never really left that far behind, in the process learning that even bad actions can be better than inaction.
With its multiple generations and nonstop plot developments, "Laggies" — written by YA novelist Andrea Seigel; it’s the first of Shelton’s films the director didn’t write — can veer between categories: dysfunctional family dramedy, “Bridesmaids”-esque sisterhood comedy and the quarter-life crisis genre that Noah Baumbach practiced so expertly in “Frances.” But Shelton, who’d explored the vagaries of confused bro-hood a few years back with “Humpday,” manages to put her own thoughtful spin on the woman-adrift genre.
As in the best of the director’s work (she also directed indie darling “Your Sister’s Sister,” a movie that, like this film, had its share of kept secrets), Shelton can play situations for laughs while maintaining the characters' three-dimensional humanity. And though Knightley’s character isn’t consistently believable, the film captures the awkward transitional state of of late-twentysomething life.
That may be because of its screenwriter. Seigel, now 34, wrote the script at a point in her twenties when she faced these concerns and romanticized her school years. “I guess in my own life I had certain hesitancies about institutions and [the fact that you’re] supposed to grow up a certain way,” she said at a post-screening Q&A with several dozen cast and crew. “When I was a teenager things seemed more heightened and luxurious."
Shelton and Knightley then developed chemistry with the kind of let's-get-down-to-it discussion that one might find in the film. "She took us out to dinner," Knightley said of her costars and director. Lynn "basically told me about life and I listened."
Peeks into twentysomethings' lives have resonated with the core demo, perhaps because for so long mainstream entertainment has ignored many of these experiences, at least in a meaningful way. Can "Laggies," which is seeking distribution at the festival, become “Frances Ha?” Some might question its level of ambition and precision. But as the movie's heroine might say, even a slightly imperfect attempt is better than the alternative.
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