Seattle-based actor Matt Smith isn’t widely acclaimed outside the area, though his credits are more diverse and sophisticated than many better-known performers.
An improv comedian and educator, he has also scored bit parts in “Spider-Man” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” performed on the now-defunct local sketch comedy show “Almost Live!” and works as an auctioneer. But there is likely no better introduction to his work than “My Last Year with the Nuns,” director Bret Fetzer’s stimulating adaptation of Smith’s 1997 one-man-show, which recounts Smith’s experiences “a white 13-year-old boy in Seattle, Wash. in 1966,” as an opening title card puts it.
However, race is just one ingredient that plays a role in forming the subtext of this alternately gentle and raunchy paean to Smith’s childhood memories, which unfold across the Capitol Hill neighborhood where he grew up.
“My Last Year with Nuns” magnifies Smith’s appeal. With his folksy delivery belied by naughty asides and eyes that bulge and dart about to animate every line, Smith appears throughout as the movie’s narrator and only star, recalling his youth by addressing the camera and playing various other roles in the process. With Smith’s memories as the subject, Fetzer constructs a compelling cinematic experiment that turns the actor’s monologue into a feature-length movie, and the result holds as much appeal as the solitary member of the cast.
Guided by John Osebold’s gentle score, the movie darts through 10 locations around the Capitol Hill area, while Smith deadpans a series of tales involving his experiences as a newspaper delivery boy regularly starting trouble with his fellow Catholic schoolmates. Though he occasionally dons the outfit of a nun, looking back at his antics with disapproving glances, for most part his transformation emerges by way of implication. Donning a variety of voices and wildly gesticulating to energize his accounts, Smith is never a bore to watch.
The actor provides an lively survey of his colorful social circle, including his shifty pal Hank McGee, partial to hocking “loogies” onto the ceiling of their newspaper shack, and an African American neighbor who winds up defending Smith during an altercation between the white and black cliques in the neighborhood. His world is alive with details. Smith sketches out the geography of the neighborhood with the same zest he brings to recalling his envy of “the badass of the 8th grade” and the humiliations he experienced the classroom. The result is like “Amacord” by way of Spalding Gray—a rich coming-of-age story that gradually accumulates its appeal through the storyteller’s investment in bringing each ingredient to life.
Starting with his experience in the midst of a Seattle earthquake while attempting to prank his superiors at church, Smith launches into a freewheeling collection of anecdotes divided up by chapters but largely arbitrary in terms of their arrangement. Fetzer assembles the movie as an ongoing montage, cutting between Smith at his old newsstand and wandering the neighborhood to show him performing the routine before a live audience (not seen on-camera); in the latter setting, Smith gestures to maps of the area and chalkboards as if they’re footnotes to the memories that take on more vivid incarnations as he literally walks through the environments where they took place.
Though Jonathan Demme used a similar approach with the feature-length treatment of Gray’s monologue “Swimming to Cambodia,” the nostalgia conveyed throughout “My Last Year with the Nuns” has a more intimate quality. Rather than merely observing the events, Smith animates them, telling stories as if they’re unfolding before our eyes. (In the very first shot, he enters an empty stage and simply takes a breath, cleverly setting up the ensuing 78 minutes in which he barely stops to catch it.)
Not one to sugarcoat the details of his environment, Smith provides a fascinating snapshot of the racial tensions in his neighborhood engendered by segregation. In the process of resurrecting the experience, he doesn’t apologize for it. An unabashed troublemaker, he associates with a group of reprobates who eagerly spend one night attempting to harass some gay locals, only to run into problems with the cops—yet doesn’t pause to analyze their behavior, letting it stand on the terms under which he experienced it. Mainly, he positions his crew as little rascals adrift in their naiveté, which he adopts without judgement. “Jokes were our main means of communication,” he says, and in “My Last Year with the Nuns,” he maintains their cruel simplicity to resurrect the past with all its flaws intact.
Shot by Ben Kasulke—also the cinematographer for fellow Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton—Fetzer’s project maintains a visual appeal that compliments its main character’s enthusiastic presence. With each cutaway, there’s a fresh sense of invention, as Smith converses with himself in between shots while playing different characters and shifts from one locale to another. That process is complemented by chalky animation and still photographs from the period that anchor the events in authenticity. While not every angle on the actor or abrupt edit does justice to the material, Smith remains a mesmerizing presence who holds the narrative gambit together.
As he visits the empty sites of his formative years, the movie suggests that Smith is haunted by a world that no longer exists. In the closing moments, he outlines the evolution of his temperament in his adult years, as he blossoms into a disillusioned college kid, but continues grappling with his adolescent encounters. By the end of “My Last Year with Nuns,” viewers can relate to his obsession.
“My Last Year with the Nuns” premiered this week at the Seattle International Film Festival. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.