AFI Fest 2011: The Dish & the Spoon

Greta Gerwig both should and shouldn’t become a major star. She should because she’s amazing and her talent ought to be recognized outside of the indie film world where she’s already a well-known and respected name. And she shouldn’t because if she did, she might not have time to make charming little one-off films like this one. She’s already starting to break into the higher levels of indies, with Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress under her belt (and a supporting role in the non-indie No Strings Attached, which I didn’t realize until looking her up right now), but she’s honestly at her best in things like The Dish and the Spoon. A group effort between writer/director Alison Bagnall (who has acted, like Gerwig, in a few Joe Swanberg films), writer Andrew Lewis, and actors Gerwig and Olly Alexander, the film is slight but somehow enchanting despite the standoffishness of the main character and a few odd plot turns.

The film opens with Gerwig driving down the freeway in pajamas and an overcoat, sobbing loudly. She stops at a convenience store for donuts and beer (yeah…) and has to scrounge change from the car to pay for, even then only managing because the clerk takes pity on her obviously pitiable state. She’s running away from the husband she’s just found out cheated on her. I mention so much detail in this opening scene because it’s the little moments, the scenes like this that are the most charming in the film, and provide the bulk of it. Not much actually happens, but the way each moment is treated makes it special. She stops at a lighthouse and comes across a young British guy sleeping there, having traveled to the US under somewhat false pretenses and found himself without a place to stay. The unlikely pair team up, her because he has money and she craves company, him because he finds her fascinating. They balance each other well, and their random interactions with each other are the highlight of the film – in fact, they’re the basis of the film, which was made after Gerwig and Alexander met, hit it off, and wanted to make a quick film together in between other projects.

Most of the film is split between Gerwig trying to get revenge on her husband’s paramour, who seems never to be at home or at her job, and Gerwig and Alexander hiding out in her parents’ vacant vacation home and sort of “making house” together. Alexander starts taking this a bit more seriously than he should, as he starts falling in love with Gerwig, and she’s in no state for that, leading him on when she definitely shouldn’t. The plot is a bit haphazard, but it somehow fits with Gerwig’s very unbalanced way of viewing the world at this exact moment. She allows Alexander to fill in for her husband, and at one point, she even takes metaphorical control of her relationship with her husband by dressing Alexander up as a woman and wearing man’s clothes herself. It’s a rather strange and somewhat offputting sequence, but Gerwig brings it beautifully under the auspices of her character’s mental state.

In fact, Gerwig’s character here is not particularly likeable – she’s alternately listless or upset, euphoric or dejected, and can switch between them at a finger snap. One of the funniest cases of this is when she’s yelling outside her rival’s house about how she’s gonna wait there until she gets back and kill her and all this stuff, when she suddenly stops mid-sentence, gets in her car and drives away. In anyone else’s hands, this film would be hopelessly quirky and meaningless, with unbelievable characters led on by improbably plot turns. But Gerwig is utterly charming even when you want to smack some sense into her character, and it’s perfectly understandable and heartbreaking that Alexander falls for her as quickly as he does. Meanwhile, he lends a stability to her life far beyond his youth would indicate, his quiet affability the perfect foil for her unpredictable rawness.

It’s a slight movie, and unlikely to make many waves outside the indiest of indie circles, but it’s a wonderful showcase for Gerwig and Alexander especially, and a solid calling card for Bagnall (this is her sophomore feature, following 2003’s Piggie, which I know nothing about). I’ve yet to be disappointed in anything Gerwig does, excepting perhaps Greenberg, but this is the kind of film I find her best in, and I hope she continues to do these little character pieces in between her sure-to-be-increasing higher profile films.

Director: Alison Bagnall
Screenplay: Alison Bagnall, Andrew Lewis
Producers: Alison Bagnall, Peter Gilbert, Amy Seimetz
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Olly Alexander, Eleonore Hendricks, Adam Rothenberg, Amy Seimetz
Country/Language: United States, English
Running Time: 92 min

Jandy Hardesty
the recovering academic

3 Comments

  1. I need to see this film. For further Gerwig highly recommend tracking down Nights and Weekends, outside of Greenberg (you are just plain wrong) it is my favorite Gerwig film.

    Reply
  2. I think you’ll like it, rot. I do want to see Nights and Weekends; I’ve only seen Hannah Take the Stairs, I think, of Swanberg’s films, and I appreciated it more than I liked it, if that makes sense. The Dish and the Spoon doesn’t feel quite as loose and improvised as that – it’s still fresh and Gerwig’s quite emotionally raw, but the scenarios feel more planned out and motivations more clear (in a good way, for me, at least). But it’s been a while since I’ve seen Hannah.

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