SXSW Film Review – Good Night
Good Night opens with a series of houses, one after the other, parading across the screen, one story, two story, neatly manicured lawns and empty driveways. They all share the similarity of having staked in their yard a “For Sale” or “Foreclosure” sign, signaling that this film may be an indictment of the housing crisis, the economy, and a social system that honors the predatory lender and kicks to the street the heavily-debted homeowner. It is, in a way, but it’s a bit too nuanced and centers too heavily on a personal story revolving around a single birthday party being held by Leigh (Adriene Mischler), who is turning thirty. It feels like a Dogma film in the naturalness of its lighting, sets, costumes, and acting. But as Dogma films find a purity by avoiding high production values and special effects, they necessarily must excel in the precision and clarity of their writing. The writing in Good Night, while not bad, is not as smart and sharp as it needs to be to land with the emotional punch it desires.
Leigh and her husband, Winston (Jonny Mars), are having a party. The nine friends invited to attend are all under the assumption that this party is a celebration of Leigh’s last year as a twentysomething. In reality, Leigh’s cancer that had been in remission has come back with a vengeance and this may be the last night she gets to spend with them. Yes, you’ve seen this before. A group of friends reunites for a single night and they talk current events, laugh, cry, express repressed secrets and emotions, drink, and do drugs. Unfortunately there isn’t much that sets this film apart from all the other independent films just like it that seem to sit on a shelf like so many cans of tomato soup in the store.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the film is bad, it just means it’s not very good. It is decidedly average. What elevates this film from being a complete and total bore is the excellence of its cast. Mars and Mischler are magnetic and have an effective chemistry. The supporting players are all universally solid performers who inhabit their characters well. I particularly liked the tightly wound lawyer, Jake (Alex Karpovsky), trapped in a loveless marriage with a fellow lawyer, and Charlie (Todd Berger), who is adjusting to his new role as a father with a few growing pains. The others actors do the best with what they’re given, but while they land solid performances, their characters are forgettable—as are the many discussions they have throughout the night. In order to feel contemporary, writer-director Sean H.A. Gallagher has his characters talk about 9/11 conspiracies, gay marriage, and marijuana legalization, among other things. These conversations are unremarkable, however, and are never followed through to a conclusion. A character will spark a conversation on gay marriage, and another will begin to advance their opinion, but just as this happens, the film segues awkwardly to another banal discussion. Conversations flow superficially into and out of each other to no great effect, and the film loses momentum because of this.
To its credit, though, this film tries to be about something more. As previously stated, it’s a nuanced indictment of the ineffective greater societal structure that allows lending to those who can’t afford it and the great debt incurred by those attempting to live the American Dream. Leigh and Winston are a young and happy couple who move out of their apartment in the city to buy a beautiful house in the suburbs in which they hope to raise a family. Then she gets sick and neither spouse’s insurance plan covers the cost of Leigh’s treatment. Their debt rises, but they can’t sell the house at cost due to the housing collapse. They have lost control of their lives, as many Americans have. And so the struggle for control becomes a theme of this film—in an attempt to control the reaction to their news, Leigh and Winston bake marijuana into the birthday cake; Jake, the lawyer, attempts to control what types of conversation are allowed in his car while he drives; wives attempt to control their husbands. There is a hierarchy of control in which those with little of it attempt to control what situations and outcomes they can. It’s a potent message, but it isn’t effectively handled and is lost in the muddled mess of inane conversations and emotional confessions.
There is too much focus on the minute specificities of the party rather than on their emblematic significance. The ordinary conversations of characters become the focus rather than the development of any empathy towards them. Maybe if Gallagher had given himself fewer characters he could have handled them better, fully fleshed them out, given them more resonance and power. He is a director with potential, though, for he has found the heart of his story. It just feels undercooked. With more revision he may have found a narrative cohesiveness that would have lent a greater emotional impact. As it is, the final scene, designed to be fiercely emotional, feels unearned and empty.
Final Grade: B-