10:39 am Oct. 19, 2012
Nobody Walks, Ry Russo Young’s deceptively tough, accomplished third feature, is a story about women, which is less ordinary than that might make it seem.
Mostly because it’s not concerned with girlhood or sisterhood or any of the other hoods, and might easily be mistaken for a story about what men do to women. Instead it attempts to illuminate the hidden designs that bind women in a world defined by the demands and indifferences of men. It’s a kinship expressed through its alienations: the things we imagine together but refuse to share, the ways we betray and become each other in a self-enforced, and secret, feminine solitude.
Young (who co-wrote the script with Lena Dunham) doesn’t make it easy on herself: the gap between what Nobody Walks appears to be—a story about men and women, specifically alluring young women and older, married men—and what it is gets tricky. The big, familiar angles of the infidelity drama can prove too powerful for applications of nuance. Especially when the set-up is as simple and recognizable as this one: 23-year-old New York artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby in a quizzical bowl cut) arrives in Los Angeles for a residency in the pool house of a bobo fabulous, highly functional Silverlake family—that is Hollywood sound designer Peter (John Krasinski), his therapist wife Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), their young son Dusty (Mason Welch), and Julie’s prodigal teenage daughter Kolt (India Ennenga). Martine is the proverbial stranger in the house, the arrangement having been brokered by a (female) mutual friend of Julie and Martine.
It’s not immediately clear what she’s doing there, perhaps because Young is focused on establishing Martine’s sex-bomb bona fides. She is that creature who happens to every man she meets, beginning with her seatmate on the flight in who offers Martine a ride but is hoping she might drop to her knees first. For the most part Martine is a passive observer of her effect on men, from flight guy to Peter’s assistant David (Rhys Wakefield) and even wee Dusty, who sneaks out of bed one night to cop a feel. She meets every uninvited come-on with curious interest, sometimes resisting and sometimes giving in; we are meant to understand it as her burden.
This doesn’t entirely work, especially early on, when long, sensuous sequences of Peter and Martine dreaming up and recording kooky sound effects (for the tediously arty short film she’s including in an upcoming gallery show; scuttling insects are her stars) force the issue of her guileless charm. The build-up to first contact feels like an accident of circumstance with characters as inscrutable as these; insofar as it exists their attraction is less passionate than a product of preparation meeting opportunity. Not unrealistic, that, but not quite believable here either.
Sixteen-year-old Kolt, meanwhile, is practically radioactive with longing for Peter's assistant David, who stands in polar opposition to her adoring boy-pup Avi (Sam Lerner), a schoolmate with big glasses and no game. When we first meet Kolt she is being singled out in class for her poetry; she spends her spare time studying for the SAT with an unpleasantly suggestive Italian tutor (Emanuele Secci). Kolt is one of the smart girls, on paper, anyway; the world has presented a new set of problems and a new set of powers, yet to be mastered or matched up. It’s a theme reflected in Martine’s observation that getting into a casual hookup situation while she’s trying to do serious work isn’t smart (before she does it anyway, activating Kolt’s eternal, throbbing scorn), then again when Julie’s needy, her sexually aggressive patient (Justin Kirk) shrugs that “a lot of smart women think too much to look good and talk too much to fuck well.”
That line in particular brings Dunham's presence in the collaboration to mind; you might well imagine a whole movie made up of such (appropriately self-impressed) aperçus. In fact Nobody Walks is distinctly vibe-driven: the use of ambient and atonal sound is effective without being overbearing, and Young lets the story unfold indirectly, in moments and small interactions that are tightly controlled without feeling contrived.
The performances are lived in and persuasive (Dylan McDermott has an excellent cameo as Julie’s aging indie musician ex), a counterpoint to the more poetic style. For each scene that falls heavily—Julie’s career advice to Martine, fresh from her husband’s arms, to “keep doing what you’re doing” comes to mind—there are moments like the one that follows, when Martine watches Julie and an impossibly casual post-tryst Peter through a window, the latter all cozy jokes and cookie-breath kisses.
Once pants are dropped and bridges are crossed, Young faces a dilemma echoing that of her lovers: the moment when an affair’s forbidden excitement is irrevocably punctured and instead of a dreamy art film you find yourself trapped in a second-rate soap opera. DeWitt in particular shoulders the burden of expressing that disappointment well, and Young adds something new to an old story by hanging close to each of her female perspectives (notably in an astonishing late scene with Kolt and her tutor). We have no such access to the men, a choice that makes more sense as the film goes on.
As the bonds between various couplings prove unstable and tenuous, a creeping—even suffocating—ivied blend of awe and wariness works to connect the women to a long and powerful heritage, and to one another.
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