Directed by Lynn Shelton
Written by Andrea Seigel
Starring Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Jeff Garlin, & Mark Webber
NOW PLAYING in NYC and Select Theaters
Lynn Shelton loves her characters—probably too much. They never seem to endure anything too harsh. In film after film, Shelton orchestrates compelling, conflict-laden situations born of bad sexual decisions, secrets, and outright deception. But just as things are about to get truly heavy, Shelton gets squeamish and pulls back, never letting her carefully-constructed dominoes really fall.
‘Laggies,’ Shelton’s well-acted and gently engaging fourth feature, is no different. The film stars Keira Knightley as Megan, an indecisive, ambitionless young woman content to do menial work for her doting father (Jeff Garlin) instead of seeking a real career. Her mother and her increasingly career- and family-focused friends disapprove. When Megan spies her father in an act of outdoor marital infidelity, then reluctantly agrees to her goofy, milquetoast boyfriend’s (Mark Webber) suggestion of an imminent Vegas wedding, it all gets to be too much: She decides to take a break from a life that she was already kind of taking a break from. Megan buys some booze for Annika, a teenager (Chloe Grace Moretz). She spends the night hanging out with Anika and her friends, and then just kind of moves into Annika’s house. Megan tells her fiancé and friends that she’s attending a week-long career seminar. Call it a nervous breakdown, Lynn Shelton style.
The film, a bit loose and aimless at first, gains more focus with the introduction of Annika’s father, Craig (Sam Rockwell). His wife (Annika’s mother) ran off years ago to pursue a low-level modeling career, and both he and Annika are still smarting from the abandonment. After Megan feeds Craig a phony reason for her extended sleepover with an adolescent—strategically omitting the whole “I-have-a-fiancé” thing—he decides to let her stay for a few days. His real motivations for doing so are clear: He’s lonely, and he’s attracted to her.
Knightley inhabits her character, palpably conveying Megan’s helplessness and frustrations. Megan’s indecisiveness creeps into the broken structure of her sentences. She always seems to begin speaking before she knows exactly what she’s going to say, haltingly assembling her words as she talks, the lines of her furrowed brow standing out like varicose veins. Moretz’s role is less complex: Whereas Megan’s flaws seem to bubble up from uniquely drawn internal flaws and neuroses, Annika’s hard edges and bone-deep insecurities stem from external factors, particularly her mommy issues. But Knightley and Moretz have terrific chemistry, their similar emotional paralysis allowing for strong kinship and mutual understanding.
Sam Rockwell delivers the film’s most impressive performance, precisely because he’s forced to compensate for the film’s most underwritten role. When it comes to fleshing out Craig’s mental state, he does ten times more work than Andrea Seigel’s script. Without the nuances of Rockwell’s performance, Craig would be aloof and detached, subsisting on charisma, quips, and not much else. Instead, Craig is a three-dimensional character, lonely and hurting. Rockwell conveys depth and vulnerability with a crackle in his voice, a curl of his lip, a downturn of his eyes. He makes Craig’s cockiness seem like a defensive wall, erected in response to pain and hard luck. His chemistry with Knightley is electric, somewhat masking their undercooked relationship and the risible speed with which they fall for each other. When Craig learns of Megan’s many prevarications—most notably her imminent marriage—Rockwell delivers a master class in reactive performance, radiating heartbreak through a strained attempt at maintaining his composure.
“Laggies” is genuinely pleasant to sit through. The characters are engaging, their banter is sharp, and the humor lands more often than not. The film gets at some thoughtful themes about growing up and learning self-reliance. But Shelton often shies away from complexity and moral ambiguity, reluctant to alienate us from her characters. For one, Megan’s fiancé is a manipulative creation: It’s a cheap trick to elicit sympathy for a cheating partner by making the cuckold an insufferable, slightly effeminate dork. In theory, Megan’s infidelity mirrors her father’s, highlighting the idea that people judge their parents’ sins even as they repeat them. But such themes are blunted and distorted by our wholesale empathy for Megan.
And while Shelton establishes compelling conflicts—lies on top of lies on top of lies, just waiting to wreak havoc—every plot point is settled far too neatly. Characters make self-improvements and clean breaks, and win forgiveness with minimal effort. Megan never really suffers too much for her sins. She faces some judgments and consequences, but no outright explosions. Shelton’s ‘Humpday’ and ‘Your Sister’s Sister’ pulled similar punches. It’s as if Shelton can’t bear for her characters to suffer too much before everything goes their way.
In the future, Shelton might take a lesson from last year’s ‘Enough Said.’ One of the best romantic comedies of recent years, that film has much in common with “Laggies,” notably an indecisive protagonist who withholds damaging information from the object of her affection. But unlike in “Laggies,” revelations create ugly, lasting consequences, and thick dust must settle before reconciliations can be made. That’s real. That’s human. Severe betrayals can’t be washed away in a couple of days. Someone should tell Shelton that it’s okay to let her characters suffer harshly for their choices, even—or perhaps especially—in a romantic comedy. Low points and brutal fights just make upbeat resolutions more satisfying.
— David Teich