“Suck it up, go with your gut.” That’s the advice Seattle late-twentysomething Megan (Keira Knightley) gives to adolescent Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) at the end of Lynn Shelton’s most commercial movie yet, Laggies. Shelton herself has followed that mantra, pioneering a successful indie career by going with her gut. She’s a generous filmmaker, giving female characters dimension and detail without sacrificing the crispness of her men.
Shelton has created a cottage industry in Seattle making films that are cool, contemporary, and just a little bit angsty without being all tattooed-edgy. I loved the sibling issues raised, and the actresses engaged — Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt — in the prickly yet tender comedy Your Sister’s Sister. I sighed during the uneven masseuse dramedy Touchy Feely, also starring DeWitt, a yeasty bread that refused to rise. Everyone makes mistakes, though women directors often don’t get a second chance.
But Shelton, who directs both TV (the upcoming Fresh Off the Boat) and has three film scripts in development, sucked it up, undeterred. And along came the Sundance hit Laggies, slang for folks that are lagging behind but don’t have the true philosophical entropy of slackers. It’s a more temporary condition.
The comedy, which Shelton directed from Andrea Seigel’s sexy, sweet-natured screenplay, opens briskly. Megan escapes a claustrophobic wedding reception in which her sympathetic beau (Mark Webber) has just tried to kneel down and propose. He’s doing the right thing, but Megan instinctually recoils: How can it feel so wrong? Is that all there is, my friend? What happened to flat-out fun on the modern woman’s rush to career, love, marriage, and a baby carriage?
Maybe, the script wonders, it’s not that Megan is lagging, but that when it comes time to keep up with the Joneses, she’s just not all that into it. Wandering in her slinky formal through the neighborhood, Megan bumps into Moretz’s Annika in front of a convenience store. The high schooler asks the older woman to buy her and her friends beer — it’s a scene that we’ve seen in a million movies. Megan does, and then hangs around for a brew and a skateboard session. She feels an incredible sense of release and relief.
When Megan asks Annika if she can shack up over at her split-level house for a week to get her head on straight, is she running away — or running to something new? Megan doesn’t know, and neither does the audience. Annika shrugs and agrees, since her own life seems deadly dull, sharing a roof with her distracted divorced father, Craig (Sam Rockwell).
In the fish-out-of-water comedy that results, there’s a generosity of spirit towards every character. Knightley charms — and she doesn’t even have to wear a corset and speak period Austen English. Stepping into a role originally offered to Anne Hathaway, Knightley easily switches on an American accent, displaying a light, contemporary touch that was also visible in the under-performing romance Begin Again. (She’s back speaking posh in tweeds and cardigans in a supporting role in the upcoming WWII drama The Imitation Game.)
And it’s a pleasure watching Moretz, an agile young actress skilled at comedy and drama, playing someone her own age that’s not profoundly damaged. I winced last month at her abused hooker in The Equalizer, where her character’s only purpose was to dress like a slut, be a punching bag, and disappear at the end of the first act to provide the motive for Denzel Washington’s violent, avenging geezer.
Another of Laggies‘ joys is Sam Rockwell. He’s genuine and distracted and kissable in the rumpled, Mark Ruffalo thinking-woman’s-love-object way. It’s hard not to fall for his character, something that Megan soon discovers.
We laugh, we cry, we blush, and we want the best for Shelton’s characters in this, her finest movie to date. The Seattle native has hit her stride and reached out beyond her niche audience, with a breezy modern comedy hooked on a heroine that flirts with disaster and finds unexpected romance while lagging in her neighbor’s backyard.