Female Filmmaker Friday: Fits and Starts, 2017 (dir. Laura Terruso)
Laura Terruso’s Fits and Starts was one of my favorite films out of the 2017 SXSW film festival. Unfortunately I don’t believe the film ever got a proper theatrical release, but thankfully if you have Amazon Prime you can stream it with your subscription. It’s a delightful romantic comedy that looks at both the struggles of creativity, balances in relationships, and how sometimes success is all about how your present yourself to others.
Laura Terruso has written and directed many shorts, and also co-wrote the Sally Field-starring film Hello My Name Is Doris with director Michael Showalter (based on her own short film). Fits and Starts was her feature film debut as a director and her second film Good Girls Get High debuted las fall at the Los Angeles Film Festival, though I don’t know if it has received a distribution deal yet.
Among other things, this is a film about creative anxiety and what happens when one is unable to present oneself or one’s ideas well to others. It starts out with what appears to be a typical in-store book reading, which turns into a terrible nightmare as the film’s protagonist David (Wyatt Cenac) imagines himself with no book to read from and no clothes to boot. Just before he wakes up from his dream we see his wife Jennifer (Greta Lee) judging him severely. This sets up everything we need to know about David: he’s having trouble finishing his book, he’s unable to present himself properly to others, and he fears his wife’s judgement.
We then get to an actual book reading – but it’s Jennifer who has been published and is now reading from her second book, which goes smoothly. However, the night goes less smooth for David who bungles his introduction to Jennifer’s publishers, unable to explain the premise of his novel beyond, “It’s a coming of age story.”
Cenac and Lee are great as the literary couple. They have a happy ease together that is also peppered with the kind of irritation you only get with someone with whom you’ve spent a great deal of time. Later in the film we get a peek at how these two met – at the time David had just published a story in the New Yorker and was working as a writing professor; Jennifer was an M.F.A. student yet to even be able to call herself a writer. After encouragement from David, Jennifer embraces her talents and as we see in the present has become a prolific, critically acclaimed writer. Meanwhile, David has been writing and re-writing the same novel for years.
Anyone who has watched Netflix’s new excellent show Russian Doll has seen how great Greta Lee can be (and if you haven’t, watch the show already!). It’s great to see her in a lead role in this film. Not only is she a great writer, she’s also great a playing the literary game – another aspect of “getting published” David is not comfortable with. We also discover that Jennifer has not even read his draft due to her own writing and other commitments. This, over course, becomes a major point of contention between the two as they head off to a literary salon hosted by her publishers. We see what Jennifer can do to help the rough patch their relationship has hit, but it’s less clear what David can do. Or is it?
David goes through most of the movie in what seems like a sleepwalk. There are a few moments when he perks up – mostly moments with Jennifer – but for the most part he remains very closed off, awkward, almost passive as he takes in the world around him. Is this because he is an introvert? Does he have social anxiety? Depression? Or is it all tied to the pressure of his inability to finish his own book while seeing his wife flourish? The film never quite makes it clear which of these, or a combo of which, causes his somnambulist-like state. It does, however, make for a great watch when David does snap out of it, mostly in moments of panic or frustration, which allow Cenac’s range to really shine.
At a Q&A after the screening I saw at SXSW, Terruso said the party-goers at the salon David finds himself trapped in were mostly based on real things she had seen at various gatherings of New York art types. One review I read of the film coming out of the festival said the film plays like a one crazy night film a la After Hours, only the increasing stakes is how pretentious the people around David can get. I thought that was a pretty accurate take on this part of the film. David is trapped among people he mostly cannot stand, having been accidentally separated from Jennifer on their way to the party. Watching him keep his cool among all these ridiculous people is quite entertaining.
Of all the ridiculous people who pop in and out of scenes throughout the part section, these two hipsters (Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas) are my favorites. To some, they may seem like a parody, but anyone who has ever been to a hipster/art party has met these people.
They only aspect of this film that I don’t care for is the introduction to lit agent Sawyer (Maria Dizzia). I’m perfectly okay with this out-there character and her antics, but when she’s first introduced Jennifer tells David she’s rumored to be “bipolar” and that’s why she does awful things to people. I wrote about the excellent portrayal of bipolar disorder in Infinitely Polar Bear a few weeks ago. It seems to me for every good movie portrayal like that one, there is at least ten throwaway joke lines about some character being “bipolar.” I really wish writers would stop doing that. 1) It’s not funny. 2) Usually the characters described as such aren’t actually displaying bipolar behavior. You can have out-there characters without describing them with stigmatized, inaccurate mental health labels.
As the film winds down and David and Jennifer make their way back to each other, we see what we saw in the flashbacks: they are at their strongest when they support each other’s work. It’s said multiple times throughout the film that it’s impossible for two artists to be in a relationship together. But what these two learn is that if they make the space for each other in their personal and professional lives, they will both flourish.
Posted on February 15, 2019, in Female Filmmaker Friday and tagged Fits and Starts, Greta Lee, Jenn Harris, Laura Terruso, Maria Dizzia, Matthew Wilkas, Wyatt Cenac. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.