To give a plot summary of Brett Haley’s The New Year is almost a disservice to the film, not because it would spoil important plot developments (there’s really nothing to spoil in the film), but because it makes the film sound mundane and uninteresting, and it’s anything but. Sunny Elliot dropped out of college in her junior year two years ago to care for her father in Pensacola, Florida, after he was diagnosed with cancer. During that time she’s also been working at a bowling alley, dating a nice but fairly bland guy she met at the bowling alley, and hanging out with a few other friends. Then Isaac Briggs, a high school friend and rival who left for New York to become a stand-up comic, returns to Pensacola for the Christmas holidays, and Sunny starts thinking about all the things she wanted to do with her life and hasn’t been able to. See what I mean? Nothing particularly new or innovative there.
Yet as I watched, I found myself more and more drawn in and connected to Sunny. Part of this is because except for the relationship specifics, Sunny is me at age 25 – this is one of the best and most genuine portrayals of the quarterlife crisis I’ve seen on screen. It matters not at all that very little actually happens in the film beyond a series of scenes following Sunny and her friends and her dad at the bowling center, the bar, her home, the hospital, etc. The moments of emotional weight are subtle ones, a hug here, a touch of the hand there, a glance or a half-smile. Though everything plays well from a cinematic perspective (nothing feels awkward or uncomfortably improvised the way off-the-cuff indie realism sometimes can), it feels absolutely un-manufactured.
The film is carried by actress Trieste Kelly Dunn in the central role of Sunny, and she’s now blown me away in two films at this festival (review for the other, Cold Weather, should be coming soon). She’s got a very naturalistic, yet very empathetic style. You believe everything she does and says onscreen, and she’s got that innate ability to tell you everything you need to know with her eyes, the tilt of her head, or other small non-verbal signals. She never seems to be acting, and her performance is the glue of the film; the fact that she’s matched by pretty much everyone else here and supported beautifully by the lovely yet understated cinematography and a script that balances warm humor and sadness perfectly is what pushes the film as a whole to the next level.
While watching The New Year I was struck by how little I care what happens next in films that do such a wonderful job of creating a world and group of characters that I grow to care about so deeply in such a short amount of time (the film is a brisk 95 minutes or so). Really, absolutely nothing could have happened at all, and I still would have wanted to stay with these people. I wanted to go out with them and celebrate with them when they’re happy and hold and comfort them when they’re crying. I wanted to be part of their lives. And because of Dunn’s unsentimental but very open performance, I got to feel that I was for a little while.
Apparently I am not the only one who was very touched by The New Year; it had its last scheduled screening at LAFF last night (Wednesday) with a sold-out crowd, and another screening has been added on Saturday. If the reaction and buzz is that good (and it’s totally deserved), I wouldn’t be surprised if it picked up a festival award.
directed by: Brett Haley
starring: Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ryan Hunter, Kevin Wheatley, Linda Lee McBride, Marc Petersen, Lance Brannon
written by: Brett Haley and Elizabeth Kennedy
cinematography: Rob C. Givens
LA Film Fest Guide
the recovering academic