Judd Apatow’s Latest Comedy Will Bring Bel Powley to the Mainstream

Despite producing many influential Hollywood comedies for more than 20 years, Judd Apatow has actually only directed seven feature films in his lengthy filmography. Two of his most recent ones happen to be documentaries. Plus, given that Apatow’s last narrative offering was the Amy Schumer-starring Trainwreck back in 2015, we’ve been waiting for a good while to see another such project come to fruition.

But with two Universal films in the works in 2019, the filmmaker behind Knocked Up and This is 40 is coming back strong. Complementing the talents of rising star comedians with his perceptive narrative voice has long been the hallmark of Apatow’s oeuvre. Hence, we can definitely expect big things from his upcoming collaborations with the Lucas brothers as well as Saturday Night Live‘s Pete Davidson.

Notably, the untitled Davidson project is quickly taking shape as it gears up for a summer shoot. Deadline reports that Gotham Award-winning indie darling Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) has been cast as the film’s lead female character.

Although details of the movie’s plot remain scant for the time being, the film is billed as a semi-autobiographical take on the young comic’s life. Judging by the personal, frank, and relatable nature of Davidson’s comedy style on stage, there will likely be equally honest portrayals of his personal struggles in Apatow’s film.

Davidson’s traumatic experience of losing his father, a firefighter who died in the line of duty during 9/11, has been a raw topic of discussion in his routines. Moreover, the highly publicized nature of his personal and professional life throughout 2018 could inspire plot points about mental health and fraught relationships in the Apatow project, too.

As it is, this particular collaboration seems like the ideal fit to deliver one of Apatow’s signature cinematic romps, which tend to be underscored by sensitive topics. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being vulgar for the most part, even oftentimes skewing in uncomfortable and cringy directions.

Nevertheless, the glue that holds many Apatow-backed movies together has always been the cast. It’s a quality reflected in his biggest hits like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bridesmaids, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Trainwreck. These flicks walk the fine line between the hilarious and the solemn by hiring the perfect people to aptly personify the messy but uncannily relatable characters that occupy Apatowland.

This is where Powley comes in. She first made waves on the big screen in 2015 after appearing in a bunch of very different movies. Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Julian Jarrold’s A Royal Night Out, and Drake Doremus’ Equals don’t at all share similar genres, let alone the same spirit. Yet, particularly consolidating her lead performances in the former two reveals a firecracker of a performer whose career is ready to springboard.

Powley began her distinguished big-screen career with a remarkably tricky and complicated lead role. Fully realizing Minnie Goetze in The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a true feat; a balancing act that requires utmost deftness to juggle the character’s many impulsive actions and moods.

In fact, I remember watching The Diary of a Teenage Girl upon release and being so baffled as to how I — then in the midst of coming of age myself — ought to receive Powley’s slovenly, confused protagonist. But a sense of clarity emerges upon second viewing of the movie: its emotional beats hit hard because they unabashedly hit home.

There is a raw honesty wedged deep in the film’s straightforward, non-judgemental depiction of Minnie’s whirlwind circumstances. She finds herself in situations with strained or discomfiting power dynamics. However, Powley imbues Minnie with the exact combination of shrewdness and internal chaos that serves as a genuine throwback to this frenetic experience of teendom. She then comes out the other side much wiser than before, but not without a heartbreaking yet understated arc progression that you can’t help but empathize with.

In contrast, Powley doesn’t get a chance to dig so deep in the broader, posher, and cleaner-cut A Royal Night Out. That said, even when she is wrapped snugly in the warmth of a safe, conservative British period piece, Powley oozes a bubbly, intense personality that’s determined to stand out. She is the undisputed scene-stealer of the movie, providing an impassioned breath of fresh air to A Royal Night Out‘s conventional proceedings.

Powley’s subsequent roles have more or less expanded on the groundwork that was set during her breakout year. She commits to an especially enthralling portrayal in Susan Johnson’s debut feature Carrie Pilby. The eponymous leading lady in the film sports a personality that noticeably reflects Minnie Goetze’s; at least when it comes to the deeply-seated emotional turmoil of growing up far too quickly.

And so Powley’s Carrie uses biting wit to deflect from the issues surrounding her life as a prodigious yet unmotivated 19-year-old college graduate. As is typical for the standard romantic-comedy, a whole lot of questionable men thrown in the mix that only serve to trip her up. Thankfully, though, despite the fact that Carrie Pilby is arguably fluffier compared to the uncompromising grit of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, its glossy finish doesn’t outshine its star’s penchant for nuance. Formulaic or not, Powley soars.

Otherwise, her work mostly taps into her dramatic talents, and you’d hear no complaints from me. Powley’s foray into horror with the arty creature feature, Wildling, lets her dig deep into the physical and psychological terrors of adolescence. Her coquettish supporting turn in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley only proves that she belongs on center stage instead. Finally, in playing an explosive, deeply troubled older sibling in White Boy Rick, she holds her own opposite Matthew McConaughey; together, the duo produces the most heartrending scenes of the film.

So, I have no doubt that Powley is able to handle both the humor and intensity that goes hand-in-hand with a retelling of Davidson’s life story. For years, she has been in the business of elevating stories of all sorts with arresting everywoman realness. Although known for playing spunky characters, I wouldn’t say that Powley is the easiest actress to pigeonhole due to the depth she brings with every role. She has always had the chops. It’s just time for more people to recognize it.

Sheryl Oh: @sherhorowitz Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.