In Lawrence Michael Levine's lightly amusing comedy "Gabi on the Roof in July," scrappy urban twentysomethings spend the summer in Brooklyn and we watch them vent. Struggling 30-year-old painter Sam (Levine) copes with a visit from his freewheeling sister Gabi (Sophia Takal, also the film's producer), an Oberlin College undergrad, while juggling two girlfriends and an inability to make rent. A rudimentary tale of self-discovery, Sam attempts to piece his life together while Gabi tries to figure out her own.
In his feature debut, the filmmaker cites Mike Leigh and John Cassevetes as his main influences, reference points that, within the context of young white hipsters, make it easy to peg the movie as mumblecore. However, Levine's innocuous narrative feels too formless for that comparison. Instead, "Gabi" seems like the shabby younger sister of Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture," another recent New York story about confused Oberlin students and the people who pity them. However, while Dunham (who's briefly visible in the credits sequence as the bitchy girlfriend of Sam's old college buddy) imagines her onscreen alter ego as being trapped in a bubble of prolonged adolescence, "Gabi" shows what happens when it bursts.
When Sam fails to pick up his sister at the bus station, she crashes with a couple of his friends and eventually loses her virginity to Sam's shady pal, Garrett (Louis Cancelmi). As Sam grows increasingly frustrated with his sister, he faces romantic desperation as current flame Madeline (Brooke Bloom) loses patience with his hesitation to settle down. Meanwhile, he keeps his gentler ex (Amy Seimetz) at bay. The oscillation between focus on Sam and Gabi creates an uneven progression, although the contrast wisely displays the relativistic nature of age.
Sam might take a childish stance in his own life, but he views his sister's irresponsible actions with the focused attention of a principled adult. Takal's fragile performance neatly explores college-age egocentrism, particularly with Gabi's hilarious realization that her academic disdain for capitalist society falls on deaf ears outside the classroom. "I just think it's really lame that art and life are, like, separate," she tells one of Sam's friends, who purrs back, "So cute."
Whenever Levine's camera lingers on his cast simply hanging out, the naturalism leads the way to an agreeable snapshot of youthful chatter. Unfortunately, anything involving plot development works against this strength and veers the film into uneven territory. A pair of awkward sex scenes, and a typical sibling shouting match that rounds off the final act, diminish the lasting power of the movie's more believable moments. Yet even as "Gabi" steadily slides downhill and ends with a shrug, it remains intermittently fun and never entirely unbearable—much like Gabi herself.
criticWIRE grade: B
Gabi on the Roof in July opens at the reRun Gastropub Theater on January 21.