‘Laggies’ and the Perils of Success

LaggiesCover

Years ago, when Ingrid Bergman first went to work in Hollywood (after a successful career in Sweden), she was wary of how American movie studios had changed the appearance of other European actresses once they were under contract. The Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo who appeared in films stateside looked very different from the actresses of the same name who were in European films a few years before. Bergman opted to keep her own eyebrows and resisted pressure to lose weight. She also wore more natural makeup than was the rule for other actresses working in Hollywood at the time. Her toned-down but still radiant look, along with her talent, may be why Bergman’s presence in films connected with audiences: she stood out among the crowd of Max-Factored, Hollywood actresses with deep hollows under sharp cheekbones.

Lynn Shelton’s best known films, the great Humpday and the equally delightful Your Sister’s Sister stood out in a similar way. Shelton devised and wrote scripts that became the basis for the actors’ improvisation (with the ‘“‘final draft’ put together in the editing room”)–and made films that seemed fresh and distinct from the usual Hollywood product. Each film had a surprisingly tight structure and was funny in ways that never occurred to mainstream filmmakers. As I sat through Shelton’s latest movie, Laggies, I couldn’t help feeling deflated. Shelton’s transformation into a mainstream director is a little like if Bergman had had second thoughts and ended up going on a diet and letting Hollywood makeup artists make her unrecognizable.

Laggies has a traditional script (in every respect) by Andrea Seigel and names familiar from the multiplex in the lead roles: Keira Knightley as Megan, an underachieving 20-something, Chloë Grace Moretz as Annika, the high school student she befriends and Sam Rockwell as Annika’s single Dad, Craig, who works as a divorce lawyer.

[caption id="attachment_15768" align="aligncenter" width="640"]LaggiesCar Annika and Megan[/caption]

At the very beginning of the film we see Megan after her own prom hanging out with her best high school girlfriends in terribly framed and shot “home video.” We can barely see their faces:  a clever and effective solution to the movie quandary of showing characters over a decade younger than they appear in the rest of the film. Unlike most people, who move on from their high school friends during college or in other parts of young adulthood, Megan is still hanging out with the same clique and we see from the beginning that they have grown apart. During the small, private, bachelorette party for her friend Allison (Ellie Kemper, playing a snide variation of the same character she played in Bridesmaids) we see her friends snip at her for everything from her working for her father, holding a sign pointing to his business, to touching the chest of a huge, tacky, gold-painted statue at the Chinese restaurant where the party takes place. Perpetually irritated Allison asks, “Why would you tweak the nipples? That’s Buddha.” (actually it’s Budai the so-called “laughing Buddha,” but I don’t expect the characters to know the difference).

Megan has a nice-guy, live-in boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber), also a relic from high school, who proposes to her at Allison’s wedding reception. Megan’s reaction when she sees him start to get down on one knee is to gasp and say, “No, no, whoa! Get up!”

Megan first meets Annika outside a liquor store when the teen approaches her with a flimsy story about her and her obviously underage friends that culminates in the question: could Megan buy liquor for them?  Megan says, “Someone did this for me when I was your age. It’s like a rite of passage.”

Annika says, “I had a good feeling about you.”

Megan cracks, “That makes one of us.”

That night, Megan hangs out with and gets very drunk with the teens and through a series of contrivances ends up staying at Annika’s home for a week–accompanying her to teen parties, the mall and taking part in a sleepover with Annika’s best friend Misty (Caitlyn Dever from last year’s Short Term 12). Shelton still has a great touch with actors and Knightley here reminds us that the movie in which she first received acclaim, Bend It Like Beckham, was a comedy. In Laggies, she’s at her best the times she gets to use her long skinny body for comic effect, as when she dons headphones to undulate along a busy road while she holds the sign pointing to her father’s business or folds herself against the ground into a turtle-like posture to feed Annika’s pet tortoise.

[caption id="attachment_15770" align="aligncenter" width="680"]laggiesDad Annika’s Dad and Megan[/caption]

The film also has a refreshing lack of hysteria about the activities of contemporary, suburban teens. Moretz’s character is a teenager who seems more like the peers I had in high school than the stereotypes that populate most movies. Husky-voiced Annika is an unapologetic “partier” who regularly lies to her father about where she’s going and what she’s doing–and unlike similar girl characters in mainstream films we’re not cued to see her as a sociopath or an alcoholic.

The film also shows empathy for Sam Rockwell’s put-upon Dad. Rockwell has good chemistry with Knightley and a great touch with lines like the one he gets when he first sees Megan in Annika’s room, “Wow, high school students are looking rougher and rougher these days.” His Craig is a mixture of equal parts of love and exasperation he feels  toward his daughter with  some “embarrassing” Dad behavior thrown in.  The film also refrains from completely vilifying Annika’s absentee mother, played briefly and poignantly by Gretchen Mol.

But the film’s central premise of Megan regressing to her high school days falls flat. Knightley’s Megan seems too sensible and grounded to be the kind of screwed-up (but sometimes fun) adult who hangs out with teenagers. And although Rockwell’s character briefly questions Megan’s intentions, no one else does, or comes to the conclusion that many of us would if we saw an adult spending lots of time with a high school student (including sleeping over): that the two are having sex or headed in that direction.

In this film queer people seem not to exist, a disappointment because Shelton is an out bisexual woman who created a complex and memorable title queer woman character (beautifully played by Rosemarie DeWitt) in Your Sister’s Sister and played a small, but memorable role as a queer woman herself in Humpday.  Laggies, like the other mainstream American movies that assume everyone is heterosexual, is in danger of seeming outdated, especially compared to recent television shows like Please Like Me and How To Get Away With Murder, which nonchalantly depict every aspect of their queer characters’ lives–and feature them as leads.

The movie intermittently focuses on Megan’s lack of direction (she has dropped out of graduate school, where she was studying to be a therapist), but the ending, like that of a screwball comedy from the 1930s, seems to suggest her whole life is resolved by choosing the right man. This mainstream rom-com directed by Lynn Shelton is better and more nuanced than any other choice at the multiplex, but I still miss the wilder, funnier, earlier Shelton films shown at art houses–and the more complicated lives of the women–and men–at their centers.

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Ren Jender is a queer writer-performer/producer putting a film together. Her writing. besides appearing every week on Bitch Flicks, has also been published in The Toast, RH Reality Check, xoJane and the Feminist Wire. You can follow her on Twitter @renjender