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‘The Sunlit Night’ Review: Jenny Slate Shines in Messy, Muted Love Story

Slate and Alex Sharp escape to the top of the world, only to find that twee plotting and unnecessary quirks can never be escaped.

“The Sunlit Night”

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Quiver releases the film to VOD on Friday, July 13.

By the time things in Frances’ life have really gone topside — her boyfriend has dumped her, her little sister is marrying a guy her family hates, her parents are separating, she has nowhere to live, and that’s without even mentioning the leeches — the would-be painter is literally begging for scraps.

“Give me the thing that nobody wants!,” she implores an unimpressed New York City curator who previously tried to offer Frances another painting residency that nobody wanted, a desperate plea that lands Frances at the top of the world (a nightless Lapland in high summer). There, stuck with a gruff boss and a mostly boring apprenticeship — painting a decrepit barn sunshine yellow — Frances tries to find herself.

She’s not alone, as David Wnendt’s “The Sunlit Night,” while clearly centered on Frances’ journey, has teed up another lost soul to join her in the beautiful, alienating Norwegian environment. The first half of Wnendt’s film ticks along, adapted by author Rebecca Dinerstein from her own novel of the same name, flipping laconically between Frances’ messy life and that of Yasha (Alex Sharp), another New Yorker who finds himself drawn to Lapland after his own world falls apart.

Mostly a story of twentysomething angst (Frances’ is less stinging, but more relatable; Yasha has been wounded by real hurt), “The Sunlit Night” also attempts to force a romance between the pair. However, Dinerstein’s script never gives that bond the room to grow. This whimsical, weird story certainly seems like it’s better suited to the page, where it can breathe a little more. Uncategorizable in the worst ways, at least the film’s literary bonafides are intact.

Nearly half the movie is over before the pair even lay eyes on each other, and while the long-hinted-at meeting initially promises that romance is afoot, Wnendt’s film soon gives way to silly, twee trappings. (The location of Frances and Yasha’s seemingly foretold meeting is the local Viking museum, presided over by a distracting Zach Galifianakis as a make-believe chieftain more concerned with pretending than feeling.)

Surrounded by stunning landscapes, Wnendt chooses to make his central characters get to know each other in a cramped Viking longhouse, populated by odd people in odd situations that don’t add to the film’s emotion. Not so much surreal as fecklessly quirky, even the most clearly emotional scenes are undone by the outlandish surroundings. As a heartbroken Yasha climbs on top of a coffin and weeps, Galifianakis stands by and strokes his Viking beard, wondering if he should move back to Cincinnati. Real feeling is diffused and deflated by strange touches, abandoning emotion for the possibility that a tiny goat or a hammy historical video have more value (they don’t).

As Yasha’s estranged mother arrives on the scene, there’s an initial frisson of joy at seeing Gillian Anderson sweep into all this weirdness; that ends the moment she opens her mouth. Anderson is saddled with a terrible Russian accent that begs laughter, yet another way “The Sunlit Night” blunts its own emotional impact. Her arrival eventually spins outward to encompass a bigger story of connection, but its plotting is so tenuous that it never sticks. Sharp, so charming in films like “To the Bone,” isn’t given nearly enough to do, and the film’s flimsy sense of time does nothing to help his journey.

At least there’s Slate, who gamely approaches her character with sensitivity and care (the actress also produced the project) and keeps Frances grounded even as “The Sunlit Night” sputters around her. It’s a Sundance sweet spot familiar to Slate, who previously appeared at the festival in a pair of Gillian Robespierre-directed dramedies, including the 2014 breakout “Obvious Child,” that show Slate’s skill in deftly moving between the funny and the painful. If only “The Sunlit Night” could muster a similar sensibility, shining bright before blinking out for good.

Grade: C

“The Sunlit Night” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section.

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