With theatrical releases hitting major obstacles, this summer has brought some truly incredible movies to digital/streaming/VOD. Sadly, The Sunlit Night is not among them.
At first glance, this dramedy looks promising. It boasts quirky and charismatic stars like Jenny Slate, Zach Galifianakis, and Gillian Anderson; it’s helmed by David Wnendt, the German director behind the squicky and sensational Sundance stunner Wetlands. Yet for all this promise of quirk and comedy, The Sunlit Night is a snooze.
Slate stars as Frances, a struggling aspiring artist who is facing a collision of crises. Her abstract paintings are derided by critics. Her vacation with a boyfriend is marred by a breakup. Then, she returns home to the cramped one-bedroom apartment she shares with her parents and younger sister to learn the former are getting divorced and the latter is engaged. In desperate need for direction (and housing), Frances takes an apprenticeship with Nils (Fridtjov Såheim) a notorious Norwegian artist who plans to transform a rotted barn on a remote rural island into a bright yellow art installation. While in Norway, this aimless American wanders into a Viking re-enactment village, run by an ornery chief (Galifianakis), as well as a relationship with a somber American tourist (Alex Sharp), and his judgmental mother (Anderson).
Author Rebecca Dinerstein wrote the adapted screenplay, which is based on her novel. The premise feels very Eat, Pray, Love: behold the pretty and lonely woman who travels to get a new lease on life and a greater understanding of herself. However, Frances doesn’t have the verve of Julia Roberts’ winsome wanderer. She’s a navel-gazing Ugly American who regards everyone she meets not as a person but as an art project. Inserts of famous works of art interrupt the flow of the narrative as Slate’s voiceover plays docent, explaining how the newly introduced characters remind Frances of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin or Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket of Fruit. She breaks down their features by the color spectrum and lists their feelings with an intellectual coldness. Perhaps in the novel, these play as charming asides, but in the film they feel jarringly intrusive, like a sloppy rip-off of the twee tangents Wes Anderson’s long managed with whimsy.
Frances’s art-focused eye urges her to ask a local grocer to pose for her. She’s shocked–but pleased–when the plump blond woman with the features of a Renaissance angel nonchalantly agrees. When the willing muse disrobes without prompting, it’s played as a joke. However, it’s unclear if we’re meant to laugh at the grocer’s frankness or at France’s American squeamishness as she flinches. Either way, this bit shows how superficial the heroine’s interest in her surroundings are. There are several scenes of Frances sketching the grocer, but only one where they have a meaningful conversation.
Dinerstein’s script is likewise shallow in its interest in Norway. Frances doesn’t speak the language, so the film is in English. Frances has little interest in her surroundings, so Norwegian culture is limited to jokes about nudity, pronunciation, funky milk, and goats. Most vexing, most of Frances’s interactions in Norway are with other Americans. Thinly sketched as a gruff tyrant, Nils gets few lines and little screen time. So, Frances goes to a museum, where she meets the aforementioned chief–a Cincinnati-native who has dedicated his life into meticulously recreating the details of Viking battles and rituals. Galifianakis crackles with contempt as Frances pokes her nose into a period-accurate blacksmith hut. For a moment, it seems this movie might find some conflict and spark! But alas, Galifianakis’s role is little more than a glorified cameo. You see, Frances’ biggest interest is not the locals, the culture, or even her work with Nils, but her inexplicable crush on the sulking tourist Yasha.
In Eat, Pray, Love, the heroine hooked up with jaw-droppingly hot men with undeniable allure. In Sunlit Night, Frances falls hard for a Brooklyn Sad Boy who has all the charm of a damp mop. Slate and Sharp share zero chemistry. Thus, scenes meant to muster romance or sexual tension merely chafe. When the requisite love scene arrives, it feels less earned and more like eh, I guess it’s that time. The heroine’s other relationships are likewise lackluster. Yet a sentimental third act would have you believe she’s made deep bonds in her time here. Again, eh.
The Sunlit Night is mostly remarkable in how it drains the charisma of Slate and Galifianakis to create a bland coming-of-age drama in which the stunted protagonist barely grows at all. To her credit, Slate gives herself to the camera, and cinematographer Martin Ahlgren recognizes her vulnerability and distinct beauty as she stares off into the mid-distance again and again. Visually, the film is striking, offering awe-inspiring settings of deep blue seascapes, vibrant green fields, and sky-scratching mountains. Ahlgren regards the characters with this same wonder; light creates a gentle chiaroscuro that better presents Frances’s artistic eye than her clumsy voiceover PowerPoint presentations. The characters are not as well-rounded in the writing, where they become one-note: abrasive, sad, or stoic, until abrupt sentimentality is required to lumber to a happy enough ending.
However, there are some solidly exhilarating bits. In a criminally small part, Anderson is delicious, delivering a side-eye that can maim along with perfectly calibrated passive aggressive quips. Jessica Hecht brings homespun warmth as Frances mother, who pauses during a touchy leach removal to commend her daughter on having “the best tush in New York!” Finally, David Paymer scores cackles with his turn as Frances’s supportive yet oft apoplectic father. When crammed in the tiny family apartment, The Sunlit Night had a distinct voice and the gumption to say something about love and more smothering aspects. Then, Frances flies to Norway and somehow the adventure becomes the movie’s dullest leg. The warmth is lost as Frances’s ruthless search for self-satisfaction smugly suffocates what could be a joyful, exciting, and surprising expedition of self-discovery.
In the end, The Sunlit Night is a ponderous, pretentious dud.
“The Sunlit Night” is out Friday on demand.