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“The Sunlit Night” Is Too Covered By Quirk

Quirky dramedies can be an absolute delight. Especially when the actor or actress in the lead role can react properly to the quirk on display, the possibilities for quality cinema are strong. Independent cinema is littered with examples of this. Unfortunately, the indie film world is also filled with efforts that just don’t work, allowing the quirk to overtake the actual story on display. Opening today, The Sunlit Night is sadly closer to that sort of a production than one that fully works. A solid performance in the central role from Jenny Slate does paper over some of the issues, but the final result is just too uneven to actually recommend.

The movie is a dramedy that eventually develops into a romance. Frances (Slate) is an aspiring painter struggling to make it in New York City. Her parents (both working artists) and sister live in a small apartment in Queens, rarely making her feel better about her life. After a breakup and a rejection for a prestigious internship, she jumps at the chance for an assignment to a remote part of Norway, just to get away from it all. Plus, she hopes the experience will reinvigorate her work and expand her horizons a bit. The village is full of odd characters, including her artist boss Nils (Fridtjov Såheim), but she meets a fellow New Yorker in Yasha (Alex Sharp). Sadly, he’s there to set up a proper Viking funeral for his father, but quickly learns that the Chief (Zach Galifianakis) in the village is just a re-enactor from Cincinnati. As they bond, Frances starts to find some inspiration, leading not just to a potential romance, but also some new artistic life, as well. David Wnendt directs a screenplay by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, based on her own novel (Wnendt also contributed some additional writing). Martin Ahlgren handles the cinematography, while the score is by Enis Rotthoff. Supporting players here include Gillian Anderson, Jessica Hecht, David Paymer, and more.

Jenny Slate does what she can here, and her reactions to some of the weirder moments on display can be amusing, but her character is just too underwritten to make a difference. She breathes some life into Frances, but the script does not quite follow suite. Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (who did create the character in her novel, after all) David Wnendt simply seem to think that quirkiness and moments of silence will fill in the blanks. Spoiler alert: it does not. You can admire Slate’s performance, but the part she’s playing never fully engages with you. The supporting cast is underserved, as well, spoiling an opportunity to make this a memorable flick.

The Sunlit Night comes close to working, but a handful of things prevent it. For one, the voiceover narration is completely unnecessary. For another, there’s both too much and too little going on. Wnendt is a filmmaker who keeps things moving, but there’s no style on display, so while his direction isn’t an issue, the writing he and Dinerstein Knight contribute doesn’t give audiences much to latch on to. The plot is thin, the quirky moments are tonally all over the map and varying in effectiveness, while the third act just kind of springs up out of nowhere. The comedy is inconsistent, the drama is middling, and the romance is almost aside from it all. That’s not a winning combination, even with Slate doing her part.

Now available, The Sunlit Night has its moments, mostly due to the smaller jokes that land, as well as the occasional emotional beat that hits home. However, it’s far too uneven to recommend. If you’re a big Jenny Slate fan or loved this book, it’s worth checking out. Otherwise, you have better options on VOD right now to consider, plain and simple.

The Sunlit Night is out on VOD now.

(Photos courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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