Some of the most arresting moments in “Trouble Dolls” feature cats. One of them is a house pet named Seagull who dies 10 minutes into the movie. The other, hairless and curiously expressive, is the kind of creature the ancient Egyptians would have rescued first during a fire. The strange contours of its nimble frame stand out even more than they usually would, as it’s being held by a woman in desperate need of a friend, its appearance serving as the culmination of an unexpectedly moving scene.
Co-writers/directors/stars Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler’s film is bookended by shots of these two felines, the entire plot branching out of Seagull’s untimely passing and leading toward the unnamed other’s appearance.
Prediger and Weixler play Olivia and Nicole, respectively, two roommates who briefly say goodbye to all that and flee New York for a few days in L.A. This comes after their landlord, who’s given to reminding them that it’s the first of the month and they’re behind on the rent, finally kicks them out. The roomies deflect as many of their problems as they can, whether by claiming that their electricity is turned off because they “don’t want to be part of the problem” or deciding they’re on a cleanse after making it halfway through the day without eating. Their cross-country trip to Nicole’s well-off parents’ place is the logical conclusion of these flights of fancy, as well as a rude awakening when it doesn’t prove to be as much of a vacation as they’d hoped.
The idea of a trouble doll encapsulates their woes: “It is taught that when trouble befalls a child, he or she should remove one doll from her box for each trouble,” the title card opening the film explains. “Before going to sleep, the child should tell the doll her trouble and while the child sleeps the doll will try to solve the problem.”
There’s little doubt that Olivia and Nicole would love to wake up with their problems gone, and in the absence of such wish-fulfilling items they only each other. This is a sad, albeit universal, fate, yet it inspires little emotion — their struggles don’t tell us anything new about what it’s like to be in such a situation, nor do they offer us much of substance about Olivia and Nicole themselves beyond surface-level flakiness mixed with quirk.
The filmmakers embody these characters more convincingly than they’ve written them. Their eccentric waywardness is endearing in one scene and gratingly overwrought in the next. It can be difficult to tell whether they’re intentionally unlikeable or simply too out there to reach; their characterization is all over the map, less multifaceted than muddled. Brief appearances by Will Forte (as an unbalanced man who gives them a ride from the airport) and Jeffrey Tambor (as their landlord) further distance us from the story rather than drawing us closer to it — for all its faults, “Trouble Dolls” works best when focusing on the frayed-but-loving bond its leads share.
After being told that it’s time to share her art with the world by a tarot-card reader, Nicole finally relents to Olivia’s plan to audition for an “America’s Got Talent”-esque show called “That Special Something.” They show up with outfits made from garbage bags and face paint, bomb their audition (which includes a Chekhov excerpt, thus explaining the gone-too-soon cat’s name) as few auditions have ever been bombed before, and prove definitively that they do not, in fact, have that special something. Scenes like this one achieve a certain cringe factor, but not the comedy that’s meant to come with it — a difficult balance that the filmmakers can’t quite pull off. You’re rarely sure whether “Trouble Dolls” is meant to be sad, funny, or both; it mostly ends up falling flat as a result.
“Trouble Dolls” premiered last week at the L.A. Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.