[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.]
The opposite of a vanity project, actress Karen Gillan’s dramatic feature directorial debut “The Party’s Just Beginning” gives the former “Doctor Who” and current MCU star the space to dig into a meaty role while also showing off her serious filmmaking chops. Set in Gillan’s own hometown of Inverness, the film uses the tragic history of the Scottish Highlands (which has the highest suicide rate in the U.K.) to spin out an intimate coming of age tale, bolstered by Gillan’s dark sense of humor and a firm understanding of how to play with narrative conventions. She’s got real style, and it shows in every minute of this particular party.
Fittingly enough, “The Party’s Just Beginning” opens at a rollicking pub, where a wasted Liusaidh (Gillan) is crooning out bad karaoke — half lyrics, half garbled manifesto. Candy pink subtitles stream across the screen, all the better to approximate the full karaoke experience, though they do little to clarify much beyond the fact that Liusaidh is in a very bad way. Her adventure out doesn’t stop there, as she drunkenly dances through the pub, making her way to the street, where she bumps into a French fry-munching stranger, who she engages in a quick, dirty alley-set dalliance before stumbling her way home. Stuffing her face with fries she didn’t pay for, Liusaidh is alone, on edge, a wreck. We’ll soon learn why.
Gillan’s film weaves together both the past and the present, folding situations into each other with an ease that brushes past any initial audience confusion. On one of her drunken walks home (it’s clear these are a frequent occurrence), Liusaidh runs into her beloved best friend Alistair (Matthew Beard), who just so happened to die a year earlier. Her nightly jaunts takes her past the site of his suicide, and he appears to her, fully formed and ready to jump from a bridge all over again. No wonder she’s such a mess, and — worse yet — no wonder she can’t move past her pain. For Liusaidh, it’s a living, breathing thing.
When she’s not drinking her face off, Liusaidh kills time with a dead-end job at a local grocery store, avoiding her similarly dead-eyed parents (her mom is a broke shopaholic, while her dad’s most fulfilling relationship appears to be with the family television), and spying on a neighboring family that seem to have it together (they don’t, a theme that runs throughout the film). Liusaidh barely has any friends and even less hobbies — “I know about cheese,” she offers her mother when accused of having no passion in life — but some secretive piano playing hints that perhaps her heart isn’t totally closed off.
A pair of mysterious figures promise Liusaidh the faintest glimmers of emotion, including handsome stranger Dale (Lee Pace) and a gentle elderly man who mistakenly calls up Liusaidh’s house line, which is just one digit off from a local suicide hotline. At first, it’s a movie-ready contrivance: She’s faced with other people in desperate need of help when she’s in no place to offer it. But Gillan’s restrained approach to the material keeps the film from falling into standard tropes. Even in the midst of so many different tragedies, “The Party’s Just Beginning” never gets overwrought, instead keeping a close hold on the humanity at its core.
A series of flashbacks, meted out over the course of the film, reveal that Liusaidh may have already been at loose ends long before she lost her friend, and help provide a deeper insight into what was going on with Alistair before he took his own life. Liusaidh may have a lot of problems, but “The Party’s Just Beginning” makes a strong case that it’s her shaky identity that has made everything so bad for her. In early scenes of her with Alistair, pre-tragedy Liusaidh is revealed to be a kind and considerate friend, and the tragedy of losing Alistair is compounded by her eventual loss of that identity.
“I wasn’t always like this,” Liusaidh tells another character late in the film, just as she’s slowly coming to the realization that perhaps she doesn’t have to be like this anymore either. “You’re only at the beginning, it’s all to come,” her friend responds, which is true for both Liusaidh and for Gillan’s burgeoning filmmaking career.
“The Party’s Just Beginning” will hit limited release on Friday, December 7.