There’s a lot to be said for taking chances, and A24 Films continuously proves it. If you’ve overdosed on Hollywood spectacle, they always have something a bit off-kilter to offer. A24 released Kevin Smith’s outlandish horror film Tusk last month – a film I wasn’t sure what to make of at first, but have often thought of with great fondness since. This month, they offer us Laggies, a quasi-mumblecore exposition on the ‘quarter-life crisis’ of Megan, played by Keira Knightly, who runs away for the week before her planned elopement to try and get her head straight.
Written and directed by women, Laggies is the third film this year distributed by A24 that features female leads with males in supporting roles and centers on the topic of a young woman trying to ground herself. Jane-of-all-trades Lynn Shelton, who directed indie darling Mark Duplass in Humpday, as well as directing several New Girl episodes, fills those shoes here as well. Andrea Seigel, who’s published three novels, wrote the screenplay. Other A24 release Under the Skin, with Scarlett Johansson is an absolutely fantastic sci-fi effort that ultimately resolves to the same basic issue, while Obvious Child, starring SNL alum Jenny Slate, delivers a foul-mouthed contemplation on an unexpected pregnancy. A24 deserves a great deal of respect for their willingness to support these less mainstream projects.
Now they bring us Laggies: Approaching 30, Megan still works as the sign girl outside her father’s tax preparation business. Few tax businesses have Keira Knightly silly-dancing out front, but if they did, business would be booming. Anyway, she’s part of a cool girl clique who’ve all found husbands and careers, and are all maturing responsibly – except Megan. Her friends find trivialities to criticize, attempting to subtly nudge her in the right (meaning ‘their’) direction. Megan’s boyfriend of the last decade is seemly perfect – nice, handsome, career minded – but she isn’t so sure this is the life she wants. When nice-guy Anthony attempts to propose to her (at her best friend’s wedding), Megan’s dilemma comes to a head, and she not-so-delicately makes an exit, as the narrative’s implausibly convenient situations allow her to execute a series of increasingly irresponsible decisions.
Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), recognizes Megan’s stunted mana after Megan impulsively agrees to buy her beer. Unsettled, as many teenagers are, finding this kindred soul compels Annika to adopt her into the home, and Megan finds herself sleeping over at a teenage girl’s house, where father Craig, played with the expected charm Sam Rockwell seems to have a limitless supply of, suspiciously tolerates her perplexing antics. The film then splits time between Megan finding a bit of maturity while helping Annika deal with some emotionally gripping teenage issues, Craig’s attempts to patiently unravel Megan’s real story, and Megan confronting her uncertainty regarding the marriage.
Unlike Obvious Child, where the supporting cast seemed little more than props, Laggies succeeds in creating a full dimensionality to everyone in Megan’s life. As mentioned, Sam Rockwell is expectedly well cast. His irreverent charm provides the right dose of needed informality Megan’s claustrophobically structured life needs. Based just on interviews, Keira Knightly represents herself as a very down to earth, jeans and t-shirt kind of girl, and suits Megan well. Their, and the other actors solid work smooth over a noticeably thin script, adding emotional depth and charm. This includes Moretz, Gretchen Mol as Annika’s erstwhile, underwear model mom, as well as Ellie Kemper, Jeff Garlin, and the rest of the cast. Even the actors playing Annika’s teenage friends deliver convincing performances in typical-for-teenagers heartrending situations.
Some technical elements in Laggies conform to usual independent film tropes, and some reveal how technological advances may be expanding the tools low budget projects have access to. Already, digital cameras have cut production costs enormously. And, Laggies is shot entirely on location in middle-class and upper middle-class areas of Seattle, while scene transitions are interrupted with fly-overs and city-scapes.
The location shots in neighborhoods are equally perplexing and interesting. The walls and counters of each house are practically bare – either admitting to an anemic budget, or telling us more about the characters. The house Megan lives in with her too serious boyfriend drowns us in a sea of beige, while other domestic locations offer little more – but maybe this is to drive home the point that this is real life – ‘the grass is always greener,’ so to speak. Craig and his ex-wife’s houses are similarly sparse, though with slightly better palettes, and each has the same turtle/butterfly motif – perhaps suggesting no one character is particularly better or worse than another, just different in some ways, largely the same in most – and each is just trying to find a place to fit in.
One aspect of the film’s tone works in concert with these technical elements, while defying typical Hollywood storytelling. In particular, Megan and Anthony are both very nice, likeable people who have absolutely zero chemistry together. This is important because we need to feel how mismatched they are, but it’s so severe it can put viewers off. Mainstream films want a viewer to root for the protagonist – even identify with her. But here, she’s not being very nice to this nice guy. Anthony is a different sort of person than Megan, but nothing’s really wrong with him. As a consequence, we often feel anxious in ours seats as Megan seems to make one poor, but ultimately disposable decision after another.
The technical decision to use fly-overs during transitions reveals some intention in those scenes. It seems very possible the inexpensive availability of drones allowed the filmmakers to do these many fly-overs. Images of highways full of cars, the sprawling Seattle sky-line, and even the amusingly obvious symbolism of an airplane leaving the hangar all litter the film. The images, which interrupt the usual cuts between scenes, blend an almost schizophrenic use of the most encyclopedic library of happy ‘elevator music’ ever funded by an independent film. The only song missing might be “Mahna Mahna” from The Muppet Show.
These intercuts seem not to fit given the seriousness of Megan’s inner dilemma, and many scenes often feel ham-fistedly spliced together, but ultimately we can see how the overview transitions work: Megan’s stuck, and life’s going by without her. Thank goodness Annika and Craig are there to show her she’s not unusual. And, not alone.
Even if Laggies isn’t a sugary crowd-pleaser like the annual Nicholas Sparks offerings, props to A24 nonetheless for always taking chances on daring independent fare. If you miss it in theaters, on a day stuck at home down with the flu, Laggies would go nicely with a hot bowl of chicken soup.