LAFF 2010 Review: The New Year

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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.

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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.

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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
Official Site
LA Film Fest Guide

Jandy Hardesty
the recovering academic

12 Comments

  1. Found out in the Q&A after seeing it (again) today that this was shot for $8000. That number astounded me; it's clearly a small film, but it looks way better and more polished than you'd think possible for a credit-card-sized budget. Heck, the TRAILER looks like it cost $8000. There's no distribution for it yet. That makes me sad. It's my favorite of all the films I saw at the festival, and I believe almost all of the others have distribution.

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  2. Shit yeah, it's Kevin Wheatley! I met that guy in Toronto – a helluva nice guy. Thought I recognized him here but had to look up his name to remember for sure.

    This trailer looks like indie awesomeness. I'll definitely keep an eye out for it.

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  3. I think you'd love it, Andrew. It reminded me a lot of Gary King's work; like What's Up Lovely in terms of focusing on a single character's inner arc, but not as arty as WUL, and like New York Lately in terms of a really good script and performances illuminating what could otherwise be a pretty mundane story. Even while I was watching it, I was thinking, Andrew would really like this. :)

    Wheatley plays Sunny's boyfriend, and he's great in the part. He manages to represent the more mundane life that she's sort of settled for back in Florida, and yet isn't a one-note throwaway character, but someone you root for as a really good part of her life. Most everyone's walking a fine line in the film that in a less nuanced script with less competent actors would've easily devolved into one-note, stereotypical characters.

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  4. Jim, I've seen it three times now (thanks to abusing director proximity to get a screener DVD), and I still love it to absolute pieces. I've now seen it enough to pick out some flaws – it's a little on the nose about her situation and the choice she faces between a comfortable but unfulfilling rut and actually getting to do what she wants but has to step out and do it – but I'm in love, and minor flaws become unimportant at that point.

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  5. Heard you gushing about this on the Cinecast, now want to see it. Kind of sounds a bit like a female version of Lonesome Jim or Greenberg. Sold.

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  6. also, bit of a long shot Jandy but does the movie use The Walkmen's In The New Year track? First thing that sprung to mind with the title, but also if you listen to the lyrics "Oh I am still living at the same address…" sounds like it would fit perfectly. There is something perfectly cinematic about it.

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  7. Ok so my thoughts on the movie:

    I liked it, its a bit Indie familiar, a bit comfortable, but I enjoyed it all the same.

    You are right, Jandy, for $8000 that looks pretty damn impressive.

    Trieste Kelly Dunn is Linda Cardellini (circa Freaks and Geeks) 2.0. She is definitely the stand out, and in this respect kind of reminds me of The Vicious Kind and how its the Adam Scott show while treading over similar story aspects. She really needs to do more films, the camera loves her.

    Now I can say definitively this needs to be seen in the triple bill

    Lonesome Jim, The New Year, Greenberg. Casey Affleck in Lonesome Jim has a lot of similarities with Sunny and Buscemi makes a very watchable film out of it, but Greenberg's Greta Gerwig takes the stuck in neutral and runs with it.

    Vicious Kind would also work too.

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  8. I need to see The Vicious Kind. It's on Instant Watch, so I have no excuses. I haven't seen Lonesome Jim, either, so I'll put that on my watch list. But yeah, I'm now automatically signed up for anything Trieste Kelly Dunn does.

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  9. Just remembered that a bowling alley plays a part in Vicious Kind too. tonally, its quite different though.

    what Trieste Kelly Dunn is to you, Adam Scott is to me, I adore this man.

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