Movie Review: ‘Songs She Wrote About People She Knows’

Review by Justin Goodman

When I first watched Miranda July’s uniquely powerful Me And You And Everyone We Know, I had to watch it in chunks. Not simply from embarrassment over the excessive guilelessness. Regardless of artistry, a pacing, wandering film like that needs intermissions. Such is the case with the similarly vulnerable Songs She Wrote About People She Knows written, directed, and composed by Kris Elgstrand. Because Songs She Wrote is a musical-of-a-kind, in fact, which at times can be irascible and tender in surprising ways but, for the most part, finds itself restrained by a desire to build up its banal and dithering moments over those which stand out as remarkable for their brevity and sobriety.

Carol, a resentful secretary played half-seriously by Arabella Bushnell, begins the story by leaving a music therapy session to take the advice too seriously. Two discordantly sing-song and violent voicemails later—to her ex-husband “and all of my dreams are of killing you and your family so violently,” and the other to her boss, “asshole Dave”—and Dave (Brad Dryborough) quits his job to the relive his dream of musicianhood, officially laying her off so that Carol, too, can live this dream. A dream she doesn’t have. As she repeats, she was just “expressing” herself. In the wings, her ex’s new wife call the cops who, themselves, are hopeful musicians. That is Songs She Wrote’s comedic-style: stubborn characters fumblingly forcing themselves on others at the wrong times, protractedly, and failingly.

It doesn’t work. These moments—including a painfully lengthy forced stuttering from Dave, with his guitar, in Carol’s bedroom, attempting to “rebut” her voicemail—fail to find humor in their situation, just as they lacked drama to begin with. In the style of the 2012 Les Miserables, songs focus heavily (if not only) on the face of the singer. Not once does this not last too long. Bushnell, for all her ability to play a offish jerk, can’t muster the emotion that dreaming of violently killing one’s ex demands. The police officers, singing a gawky pseudo-barbershop spiritual, are too forced into the movie to be comedic. Their reasoning for being there, confusing even Carol, is a “slow day.” And unfortunately, they don’t make it any faster for us.

Carol leaves town. Her several minutes walking montage, shot from behind as she moves through forests, cities, and beaches, begins the substance of the film. Now, bound together by Dave’s lunatic adamancy and Carol’s lost soul, they travel to a record producer the above-mentioned police officers busted for drugs once and have kept as a contact for musicians since. It begins with the smirk she gives him as he, defeated in a debate over analog maps and GPS, reverses, and continues on the way there with the emotional crux of the film. The revelatory moment which, in any other film, would be the pivot of interior redecorating. Dave, on the road with a sleeping Carol beside him, opens up:

There’s a moment you realize you’re more behind than ahead, and every decision you’ve made is a compromise. And you’re only going to be as good as you’ve been because you’ve lost the ability to get better. The best you can hope for is to get the shit kicked out of you for expressing yourself. Then you realize that’s nothing.

Ignoring the more fatuous analogies that follow (“like voting,” “like it’s night”), it comes across as the only truly sincere moment in a movie that pretends to be sincere at all times. And perhaps suggests, as a later scene involving Carol’s disappointment over her mother dying a quick and painless death (a scene perfectly balancing unexpected reaction with terseness), that after a certain point sincerity can only be expressed in negatives and enmity.

So Carol, Dave, and “Silent G” produce her record, Songs She Wrote About People She Knows. Ross Smith is not a remarkable actor, by any means. But the addition of Doug, or “duh,” as his nickname would suggest, helps balance out two already heavy-handed characters. An equal pursuer of Carol’s body, equally rejected, but infinitely more childish, it’s a ménage a trois not meant to be. Carol soundly rejects both, jeering at each for considering she held any physical attraction for either of them, and leveling out the lover’s brawl with a neglectful indifference which Kris Elgstrand is certainly aware he’s invoking as an ironic counterpoint to the musical rom-com genre.

Me And You And Everyone We Know is, by all means, an optimistic movie. When errors come into light, mysteries uncovered, relationships mutually apprehended, there’s the little boy tapping the sun into existence. It’s a beautiful last moment in a film beautifully shot and, for all its pauses and blushable moments, ultimately beautiful. Songs She Writes About People She Knows is like tarnished silver, however. Its cinematography is stark and flat, much like its acting, much like its script. And its ending is comprised of a gritty, fuzzy, punk rock version of Dave’s “rebut” (“I’m sorry sorry sorry sorry Carol”), then Carol’s face as it turns to the camera, and smiles. No matter how hard we try, we can’t forget that behind that smile rumbles the idea for another, similar album. Her ex’s new wife, who attended the album release party, got a special note on hers: “thanks for the inspiration.”

Available on Digital HD and On Demand February 9.

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