The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is officially dead, and the Girl with a Cracked iPhone Screen has taken her place. That’s not as catchy (it kind of sounds like the least exciting Stieg Larsson novel of all time), but it still feels like progress. The old trope was just a foil for some forlorn male protagonist, less of an actual person than an adorkable fairy godmother whose sole purpose in life was to restore a sense of self-worth to an aimless dude who forgot how to generate his own. The new trope, on the other hand, is alive — she creates her own context.
Usually a twenty something who is falling short of her potential, The Girl with a Cracked iPhone Screen is a mess, she doesn’t have a ton of money (shout out to the gig economy), and she makes an audience of millennials feel comparatively stable. Odds are, she wants to be a comedian. Or a journalist. Or maybe she has no idea what she wants to be, and is just totally captivated by how Greta Gerwig can waltz through life like she never has to choose. It doesn’t matter, the important thing is that she’s the lead character in her own story. The Girl with a Cracked iPhone Screen is every bit as scatterbrained and self-possessed as her predecessor, but if she purely exists in relation to some guy, she only does so at the beginning of the movie, before she’s embarked on the kind of personal journey that Manic Pixie Dream Girls only ever got to facilitate.
She’s a real person with real feelings, and the layer of splintered glass that lives in her pocket reminds her that every attempt to connect with the world carries a certain risk of self-harm.
If the Manic Pixie Dream Girl was a dead end, the Girl with a Cracked iPhone Screen is just a starting point; she can be anything on her way to becoming herself. That dimensionality tends to make for pretty good movies. Among the many pleasures of “Mr. Roosevelt,” a low-key landmark in the cinéma du Girl with a Cracked iPhone Screen, is that it can be enjoyed with the full confidence of knowing that it won’t feel like “Garden State” in 10 years. Written and directed by Noël Wells, whose dismissal from “Saturday Night Live” now seems to be a blessing in disguise, “Mr. Roosevelt” is a sweet and shaggy comedy about someone who needs to renovate their idea of home. It’s a reminder that the 21st century is going to be full of coming-of-age films about 30-year-olds, and it’s compelling evidence that that might be alright.
Wells, as compulsively watchable here as she was in “Master of None,” plays Emily, a Texas native who’s moved to LA in order to manifest her destiny and/or debase herself in front of disinterested casting directors. The movie is halfway over before we’re shown proof of Emily’s cracked iPhone screen, but it’s obvious she has one from the very first scene (a desperately brilliant audition where Emily talks about the first time she made someone laugh and performs flawless impersonations of Holly Hunter at a garage sale and a pug turning into a baby, both of which are themselves worth the price of admission). And it’s not like Emily has much of a support system, as she inhabits a competitive comedy scene where all of the men are total creeps; the unnervingly specific way they hit on her offers a glimpse at the acute grossness the community is currently trying to flush out.
Needless to say, Emily doesn’t need much convincing to hop a plane back to Austin when her ex-boyfriend (Nick Thune) calls to say that their cat is dying. If anything, Emily is so eager to fly home that it never occurs to her that she doesn’t have a place to stay — that’s how she winds up crashing in the house that she used to share with Eric, which has since been redecorated by his “Pinterest board” of a new girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower). And so the stage is set for an uncomfortably magical weekend of reconciliation, random sex, and revelatory personal growth.
In an age when it feels like 50% of all indie features and television shows are about struggling comedians, “Mr. Roosevelt” is clearly not trying to reinvent the wheel, but it gets pretty damn close to perfecting it. Wells knows Emily inside and out, plucking the character from the pain of her own experiences, and her awkward return to “the velvet rut” of Austin never feels schematic. Not only is Emily funny and unpredictable and totally on her own wavelength — the vibrant heroine an awesome testament to Wells’ own force of will — she acts in a way that complicates her circumstances instead of making them easier to solve.
Mr. Roosevelt naturally becomes a lightning rod for Emily’s sense of displacement as she struggles to make sense of the fact that her beloved cat had a second mom, but Emily can’t even bring herself to use the pet as a cudgel against Celeste. She would love to think that Mr. Roosevelt was hers and hers alone, but she can’t. Part of what makes her pain so interesting is that she isn’t in denial about the fact that home is no longer waiting for her. Austin is gentrifying, some of Emily’s favorite shops have closed, and that sucks. But the people she reconnects with — especially a free-spirited waitress played by Daniella Pineda, who almost becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in her own right — show Emily that she can belong somewhere even if nowhere belongs to her.
Shot in gorgeously tactile 35mm by Dagmar Weaver-Madsen and rounded out by an impeccable supporting cast, “Mr. Roosevelt” chronicles the simple journey of someone who — to paraphrase her own words — is doing the things she doesn’t want to do for a while so that she can do the things she really wants to do. It’s a tough space to navigate, but Wells’ debut makes it look easy. For a small movie, it’s convincing proof that Wells is in the right place. It’s also convincing proof that some tropes are just a means to an end. Forget Emily’s iPhone screen, it’s the world that’s cracked; she’s doing fine.
“Mr. Roosevelt” opens in LA on Friday, November 17 and in New York on Wednesday, November 22.