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.