‘Laggies’ ambles along toward adulthood

Lynn Shelton shrinks away from the brighter indie lights

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Keira Knightley as Megan in “Laggies”; Rating: R, Grade: B-

Film festivals can make or break a film. So much rides on these artificially designed screenings, especially for independent titles – which is why the choice of festivals matters. First time out with a talkie character study, then shoot for Sundance or Austin’s SXSW where audiences, whether filled with critics or the general festival-ticket-buying public, will feature adoring crowds hanging on every whip-smart quip from the hip. And, of course, it would be best if the screening is not one of five jam-packed into a day that won’t be complete until copy gets written, edited and filed before a few hours of catnapping and a return to the festival grind.

I share that scenario as a bit of self-disclosure.

While I’ve never attended Sundance or SXSW, I know what it’s like to do marathon screenings at Toronto each year, where I tend to average five films a day during my six-day stay. Everyone always wonders how I keep track of the films (and it’s all about the copious notes I take at every screening), but that’s not exactly the real issue. I maintain a conscious awareness of the toll such viewings can take on my impression of the films themselves. I work to keep my mental energies up during those middle screenings, which sometimes follow a strong morning run of awards-worthy features, with more to come in the evening. The midday movies can feel like placeholders next to the big-ticket titles.

And that, to a certain extent, explains my initial feelings about Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies,” which I caught during my five-movie opening day at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. A five-movie start is a bit abnormal for me, but the festival organizers juggled things around, offering a slew of press screenings of the festival opener “The Judge” at the last minute, and so I found myself willing to cram that film into what should have been a more relaxed indie day.

“Laggies” was supposed to have been an afternoon treat, the third movie of the day, but with a long break before a nighttime foreign indie (the French film “Girlhood” about a group of African immigrant girlfriends trying to adjust to European ways). Instead, it became the obtrusive hump in the middle of my day.

And, more than that, it challenged my sensibilities. Megan (Keira Knightley) is approaching 30, drifting along in a relationship with Anthony (Mark Webber), her high school sweetheart, while still occasionally couch-surfing at her parent’s home, in order to avoid facing the real world head-on. Her high school friends are getting married, starting families and businesses, while Megan simply watches the wheels go round and round. But she doesn’t seem to love watching them roll. She senses there’s something more out there for her, but she has no idea what it is.

So when she meets Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), a high school kid who convinces Megan to buy booze for her friends outside a convenience store, we know Megan is about to discover what matters. But there was no way this story was going to lock in with my high-minded festival perceptions, at the time. I couldn’t get with a grown woman hanging out with kids, wallowing in immaturity, especially when Annika’s dad (Sam Rockwell) discovers what’s going on and shrugs off Megan’s choices. This wasn’t social commentary; it was societal suicide.

Fortunately, a second screening of “Laggies,” far away from the bright lights of the awards season expectations, allowed me to embrace the intimacy of Shelton’s intentions. Megan is all of us. Everyone struggles with doubt and immature urges. And, as a performer, Rockwell has mastered the art of owning the wacked-out aspects of his personality, transforming them into a sharp tool, a means of expressing some piece of his character’s psyche that hides in plain sight. It is an act of genius that will one day place him squarely in a career phase that will match where Bill Murray is now.

In the end, “Laggies” comes across as a holding pattern film for Shelton, who has carved out a nice niche for herself with “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” a pair of indies on the verge of a nervous step into the mainstream. Appearances by Knightley and Rockwell should have signaled a willingness to firmly plant that good foot forward, but, instead, she has remained in place, waiting, it seems, just like Megan for the “right” moment. I hope she doesn’t wait too long though, because her audience might move on without her.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at terrencetodd.wordpress.com.

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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