Sundance 2012: Nobody Walks

The notion that nobody walks places in Los Angeles is one of the biggest L.A. clichés, right up there with the belief that Southern California is populated by beautiful sunglasses-wearing people who spend most of their time doing cocaine when they’re not driving around in their convertibles, loudly yammering about the biz.

Still, based on my limited experience there (and City of Angels dwellers, feel free to correct me), the aversion to walking is actually kind of true. At the very least, the idea provides an interesting way into the cross-coastal, gender-driven culture clash at the center of Nobody Walks, a film from New Yorkers Ry Russo-Young (director and co-writer) and Lena Dunham (co-writer), about a New York filmmaker named Martine (Olivia Thirlby) who arrives in L.A. to work on a movie with married sound designer Peter (John Krasinski) and to stay with his family at their home in Silver Lake, in part because she doesn’t drive.

With her pixie haircut and free, seductive spirit, Martine has a transfixing effect on the men she encounters. As this irresistible force upsets the family dynamic inside Peter’s home, erotic desires pervert rational thoughts and painful truths are exposed.

The film is a charged, atmospheric production that trades in subtly heightened sexualized tensions. There’s very little plot, just scenes of men melting in Martine’s presence, intersected with a similar scenario featuring Peter’s psychotherapist wife Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and an admirer (Justin Kirk) and a far more sinister one in the same vein involving Peter’s teenage stepdaughter Kolt (India Ennenga) and her much-older Italian tutor (Emanuele Secci).

Russo-Young’s third feature directorial effort turns the standard homewrecker story on its head. Martine is not the villain here; she’s just doesn’t belong in Los Angeles with Peter’s family. A lazier movie would have framed her as an uncaring temptress; this one sees and draws out the person inside the beautiful skin. She’s mysterious and naïve, unafraid of her sexuality but somehow unaware of its power.

This is a tough part, requiring an actress capable of exuding a sexual, transfixing presence while simultaneously seeming like an actual human and selling us on some inexplicable behavior, without the aid of a lot of dialogue. Thirlby straddles that line convincingly, achieving the difficult effect of simultaneously seeming open and obtuse, smart and clueless, and keeping the audience engaged.

The subplots don’t work as well as the main narrative, as the stuff involving DeWitt and Kirk feels tossed off and the leering, creepy tutor is a superfluous, one-dimensional invention. The film struggles when it flirts with melodrama and the events at hand lose credibility if too much logic is applied to them.

But Russo-Young is less interested in a literal enterprise than in producing a lyrical mood piece about the burdens of being a beautiful woman surrounded by weak-willed men. It’s an engaging production on that level, but also in some respects a radical, fascinating statement that subverts and reorients the usual interests of this sort of eroticized production.

The Upside: Ry Russo-Young’s movie turns what could have been the standard story of a homewrecker seducing a husband into an engaging feminist statement.

The Downside: The script isn’t perfect, as its subplots range from mundane to outright off-putting.

On the Side: This is an interesting, difficult film, so naturally it hasn’t been picked up yet at Sundance. The modest star power and intriguing subject matter should get it a distribution deal eventually, though.

Click here for more from Sundance 2012


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