Since making her Sundance debut with “Humpday” in 2009, writer-director Lynn Shelton’s steady output of work has accumulated into a distinctive brand. Always set in and around Seattle and starring either Mark Duplass (“Humpday”) or Rosemary Dewitt (“Touchy Feely”)—or, at her best, both of them (“Your Sister’s Sister”)—Shelton’s films are distinguished by their improvisational style and a tone that lies somewhere between laid back and extremely uncomfortable. Her latest film, “Laggies,” marks the first time she’s directed a film whose script she didn’t personally pen.
Although the story by Andrea Seigel is more tightly constructed (and much more neatly wrapped up) than Shelton’s own improvised scripts, the story of arrested development in extremis fits neatly into the director’s oeuvre.
The grainy high school prom video that accompanies the film’s opening credits establishes from the outset the extent to which Keira Knightley’s Megan is stuck in her own past. Now 28, she lives with her high school sweetheart (Mark Webber) and works as a sign holder for her overly doting father (Jeff Green) despite having earned a master’s degree in counseling. Although she can no longer relate to them, Megan still hangs out with the now cringe-worthy coterie of females seen in the video, all of whom seem to be getting married, pursuing careers, and having babies (the first of which is to be blessed with the name Juppiter — yes, with two P’s).
When her boyfriend proposes at her friend’s over-the-top saccharine wedding, Megan panics and uses the excuse of an urgent bridesmaid’s errand to escape to the grocery store for a moment’s peace. It’s here that she encounters the teenaged Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), who convinces Megan to buy booze for her and her underage friends. Transported back to her own youth, Megan complies and winds up getting trashed curbside with the pack of adolescents instead of returning to the wedding party.
Finding herself more at ease around Annika than amongst her own peers, Megan opts to hide out at the young girl’s house for a week while her boyfriend thinks she’s at a self-discovery retreat on Orcas Island. Piercing a gangly boy’s ear at a high school party, gleefully partaking in sleepovers, and advising Annika on her love life, the bond that forms between the adolescent and not-quite grown woman echoes the thematic core of Shelton’s first feature, “We Go Way Back,” in which a 23-year-old struggling actress finds herself face to face with her 13-year-old self. But the relationship with the most charge is the one that develops between Megan and Annika’s lonely but gregarious father, Craig (Sam Rockwell, in a winning performance).
That the two are destined for romance is clear from the moment they meet. Not buying Megan’s guise as one of Annika’s new school friends (“high school girls are looking rougher these days,” he knowingly quips), Craig calls Megan out on her scheme and they form an instant connection. Taking on the role of both father figure and love interest, Craig watches Megan affectionately as she plays with Annika’s pet turtle in the backyard—an animal which provides an apt metaphor for the pace of her own development—and finds in her the kind of companionship that evades him at the painful singles mixers he forces himself to attend.
Like all of Shelton’s narratives, Laggies unfolds in a world ever so slightly removed from the one most of us inhabit and the extent to which the audience is willing to emotionally invest in the improbable relationships she presents us with depends almost entirely on the cast. It’s why “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” were winning in a way that “Touchy Feely” wasn’t, and although she’s branched out from her regular players, the director has picked a winning team here, piecing together a principle trio whose chemistry is as palpable as it is natural. Knightley delivers what is perhaps her best performance outside of a period piece in quite some time: whether dancing street side with a giant arrow in hand, flipping a skateboard in her bridesmaid dress, or tweaking the nipples of a giant golden Buddha, her character manages to grow from annoying to endearing over the course of the film’s three acts.
But “Laggies” has a “13 Going on 30: undercurrent running through it that raises a number of red flags — most importantly, the infantilization of the female protagonist. Clad almost exclusively in pajamas throughout the second half, Knightley’s waifish physique enables her to inhabit the spheres of womanhood and girlhood simultaneously. “Take off my daughter’s t-shirt, it’s a little creepy,” Craig comments before they roll around together for the first time, but it’s precisely Megan’s pseudo-adolescence that attracts him to her in the first place. For a movie that claims to be about a young woman’s identity and self-discovery, the extent to which that identity is defined not by what she does or who she really is but the man she chooses is a little unsettling. However, even if the film doesn’t leave much to ponder past the closing credits, it’s enjoyable while it’s unfolding, doing justice to the strengths of Shelton’s ever-expanding filmography.
A version of this review ran during the Sundance Film Festival. “Laggies” opens in limited release this Friday.