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Norway out – ‘The Sunlit Night’

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What do you do when the muse abandons you? How do you get your art back on track when things are stalled? To what lengths would you be willing to travel to escape stagnation and experience revivification?

“The Sunlit Night,” directed by David Wnendt from a screenplay by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (adapted from her own novel of the same name), takes a look at how one artist attempts to answer these questions. It’s an exploration of the ramifications of allowing our callings to define us at the expense of all else – and what happens when we’re forced to address any shortcomings in that regard.

Set against the stunningly beautiful desolation of an isolated Norwegian island – a place where the sun never sets, populated by an odd collection of strange and quirky characters – it’s one woman’s journey to rekindle her creative fires and rediscovering her ability to connect. It’s a sweet, albeit slight story, one greatly elevated by a strong central performance by Jenny Slate and some absolutely stunning scenery.

When we meet Frances (Slate), she’s in the midst of getting a withering critique of her work. Frustrated and creatively stifled, Frances is flailing about, trying to find something that will get her out of her funk. It doesn’t help that every grant and residency she applies for is rejecting her. Oh, and her boyfriend took her all the way out to her family’s lake house just to dump her. She’s got to live at home with her parents Levi (David Paymer, “Horse Girl”) and Mirela (Jessica Hecht, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) – struggling artists in their own rights.

Out of the blue, a lifeline of sorts arrives. A once-prominent (and notoriously difficult) artist named Nils (Fridtjov Saheim, “The Birds”) is seeking an assistant to help him with his latest project – painting a barn in varying shades of yellow. The only problem? The barn is located on one of Norway’s Lofoton Islands, in the Arctic Circle.

Upon her arrival, she quickly learns that Nils is cantankerous and antisocial, a growling, grumbling jerk with very little interest in Frances as anything other than a means to an end. She also meets a number of local oddballs, chief among them the leader of the local Viking reenactment camp who happens to be an American from Cincinnati (inexplicably played by Zach Galifinakis).

But things take a turn when she meets Yasha (Alex Sharp, “The Hustle”), a young man who has come to Norway to give his deceased Russian father the Viking funeral he always wanted. The two of them, both lost and searching, find something in one another. But will it be enough – for either of them?

“The Sunlit Night” presents itself as an artist’s journey, following a young woman striving to find her place. When it stays in that lane, it’s actually quite successful, thanks largely to an excellent performance from Slate, who finds way to bring forth all the confusion and want that artistic struggles can evoke.

And the beauty of the stark Norwegian landscape cannot be stressed enough. Director Wnendt and his cinematographer Martin Ahlgren have done a wonderful job in capturing the magnificent bleakness of Scandinavia; there are a handful of shots that are absolutely striking. There’s a chilly majesty beautifully framed here – a vivid visual feast.

That said, the film sometimes succumbs to the indie film sin of trying a bit too hard. We’re not given much insight into Frances beyond her desire to be a capital-A Artist; thanks to Slate’s performance, it still works, but a little more probing into her depths would have been welcome. Some of the film’s quirkiness – Frances finding a potential model working in the freezer at the local grocery store, just for instance – reads as overly cutesy and self-conscious. And the film occasionally has difficulty maintaining a consistent tone.

As for the performances, they’re pretty uneven. As mentioned, Slate is great – she manages to evoke wide-eyed directionlessness in a way that feels both interesting and honest. There’s a comfortable quality to her presence on screen – very easy to watch. Paymer and Hecht are solid as the parents; their energy is nicely offset, with Hecht going low and Paymer going VERY high. Meanwhile, Sharp is doing some sort of Mopey Pixie Dream Boy thing that really doesn’t work; he’s better than what we get from here. Saheim is too one-note, grunting and muttering his way through the film. The presence of Galifinakis is … weird; he doesn’t seem all that interested in being there and actually comes off as a bit confused more than anything. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the bizarre extended cameo from Gillian Anderson as Yasha’s Russian mother, sporting a Natasha-from-Bullwinkle accent and an air of having been on set for one day.

“The Sunlit Night” doesn’t accomplish everything it sets out to do. It’s uneven and wonky, with some pacing concerns, tonal inconsistency and a couple of iffy performances. However, the exceptional work from Slate and the exquisitely-rendered Norwegian countryside are more than enough to offset the issues. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a pretty good one – and really, that’s enough.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 19 July 2020 18:54

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