There’s no question that photographer and artist Laurie Simmons has an eye for images, and while her feature directorial debut “My Art” relies heavily on a series of homages to some of cinema’s most beloved features, the newbie narrative filmmaker really impresses in an unexpected arena. Simmons pulls triple duty on the film, writing, directing and starring in the feature, and although she knows how to compose lovely shots and her insight into the art world is keen, it’s her performance as artist Ellie that stands out in an otherwise predictable feature about growing up, no matter your age.
Mashing up mid-life crisis narratives (the film is heavy on the Nancy Meyers influence, down to the shades of “Baby Boom” and an attention to great interior design) with various recreations of classic films that run the gamut from “Some Like It Hot” to “Jules and Jim” and plenty of pictures in between, “My Art” follows Simmons as struggling artist Ellie, eager to get away and find some fresh inspiration at an idyllic summer house. Ellie’s career has been eclipsed by both her contemporaries and her own students (her real-life daughter Lena Dunham appears early as a former pupil who nonchalantly gabs about the stress of upcoming Berlinale exhibits, while Simmons tries to commiserate while clearly feeling very left out), and she needs to do something new now.
“I think you should embarrass yourself more,” a fellow artist tells Ellie, who balks at the advice, instead opting for a change of location versus a change of mindset. Set up at her pal Logan’s massive upstate New York home for a season of house-sitting, Ellie tries to use the environment to create some new work, but finds her plans for rejuvenation and peace upended by the small-town world she’s almost immediately sucked into. “We know everything about everybody!,” a local waiter happily tells her. “We like it that way.” Ellie doesn’t, but she’s too far gone by that point to have many objections.
Ellie eventually befriends a pair of misanthropic actors/gardeners — including a sweet Robert Clohessy and fellow filmmaker Joshua Safdie in a supporting turn — and finds a possible paramour (John Rothman), all of whom eagerly participate in her video recreations of classic cinema. Ellie’s work revolves around her desire to mold and shape people and situations into well-loved scenes, but she’s mostly unable to recreate her own image, even when given plenty of tools to do so.
Soon, however, her work begins to bleed into her real life, and Ellie (and her art) start to blossom into something more substantial. Along the way, Simmons and her cohorts maintain a light touch, and “My Art” is frisky and funny, and not nearly as pretentious as a film about an artist, made by an artist and titled “My Art” would lead audiences to believe. Simmons is particularly adept at navigating tricky situations, including an early party scene that follows Ellie as she tries to get rid of an unwanted guest, reflected back later in yet another party sequence that’s nearly stolen by a delightfully bonkers Parker Posey. Simmons still manages to shine even playing against Posey, who is energetic as ever as Safdie’s wild wife.
Simmons is no stranger to the cinema, and her first film, 2006’s musical “The Music of Regret,” brought many of her photographs to life, thanks to subjects that included puppeteers, dancers, cinematographer Ed Lachman and even Meryl Streep. “My Art” isn’t even her first foray into acting — she appeared in Dunham’s 2010 breakout “Tiny Furniture” as a version of herself (the “tiny furniture” of the title related directly to Simmons’ work with dollhouses) and had a small role on Dunham’s series “Girls” — but it’s her first lead role, and she makes a strong case for her acting chops, even if she is again playing a tweaked version of her real-life persona. Art, it seems, will always remain beholden to life, but Simmons’ own existence seems poised to have an exciting second act in a very different arena.
“My Art” had its North American premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.