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By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: NOBODY WALKS

NEW YORKERS IN LOS ANGELES with Italian filmmaking on the brain: that would be director Ry Russo-Young and her co-writer Lena Dunham, with Nobody Walks, a tactile, tensile minor-key successor to Pasolini’s Teorema. Martine (Olivia Thirlby) is a 23-year-old New York photographer with an upcoming one-woman show and she’s come to stay with a Silver Lake family while finishing sound work on a film. Rosemarie DeWitt plays an old friend of Martine’s mother, and John Krasinski her husband. DeWitt’s character is a therapist and mom to a 16-year-old daughter from a first marriage and a younger son with Krasinski’s; he’s the sound designer who’ll help finish the film. A house, a home, perching comfortably on the side of a hill. Martine enters the movie as a passenger, hair pixie-short, looking left and right, big 1960s-style sunglasses, a movie star in the French film in her Brooklyn mind. Think Jane Birkin: Martine is. But there’s more afoot than admiring a Holga-toting dewy kewpie.

“It’s a small town, at least the parts that we inhabit,” a character says in one of the story’s many seeming and actual seductions, and while the characters are shown at their work, there is an air of L. A. lassitude spun with the centripetal force of the arrival of a stranger. Russo-Young and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt never strike the most apparent of notes—no golden-hour backlit bits of down on exposed skin, say—but most every member of the cast has a moment that involves touch, down to the odd moment when the small son gently touches a patch of uncovered hipbone. It’s like a series of ticklish hints of the fevers transmitted through the Eames-like home like a quiet, localized Santa Ana. And the way the characters toward each other! (DeWitt gets a number of sublime reaction shots.)

Russo-Young and Dunham’s script works by suggestion and inference, tipping in the lightest strokes of backstory. You can imagine the consternation of an elderly member of its premiere audience Sunday midday at the Eccles, worrying about “sympathetic characters” and the like, even as a big chunk of the film’s text and action insists, open your ears, open your eyes. Martine’s wardrobe changes from scene to scene, offering in each detail a new clue to her self-image, and there’s telling detail thought the exquisitely perfumed fabric, from the 16-year-old poetess perched, legs folded on a couch, with a Field Notes steno pad; in a montage demonstrating how sound design is made, a close up of Thirlby’s pooling brown eyes with the slowed sound of Coca-Cola poured into a glass; and Krasinski’s young blond sound assistant whose retro-boat Oldsmobile Starfire bears antique gold-on-black license plates. And, too, his choppy haircut and his sustained double takes: as in several other smaller roles, you can readily draw a strong picture of where he stands in this world.

The title Nobody Walks is an ominous variation on the bromide, “Nobody walks in Los Angeles,” along the lines of “no one gets out of here alive!” And fuck-freighted as the film is frrom the top, edgy with currents of want, the title plays. As do apparently straightforward lines like “are you a free set of hands,” which in retrospect, seems to punch on-the-nose on the nose. (As does the most unlikely character quoting a poet over dinner to the effect that you can understand a poem without knowing what it means.) Of course, these threads of active and possible and prehensile and hoped-for and dangerous and just plain wrong have spun out of control through the agency of Martine’s arrival. While Russo-Young gently dandles the line in a number of instants, there’s no mistaking the angry ghost of Pasolini’s Teorama nodding down at the story.

These characters are exceptionally self-aware and conscious of what’s in the wind, which sets a simmering mood, if not the expected narrative tension. There’s a slower burn: the characters deliberate before turning reckless. A few scenes erupt: an older Italian tutor’s banter with, then anger toward the 16-year-old seems like a tacit acknowledgement of the debt to Pasolini, especially in the arguments in Italian, which are also subtitled. A small stretch would suggest that Martine’s 16mm black-and-white film borrows from Buñuel in images of ants criss-crossing the landscape of a young female face as if it were limitless desert. (Russo-Young cites the early photographs of Francesca Woodman’s as an example of art she showed Thirlby as indicative of Martine’s kind of subject matter.)

But moment to moment, smile to smile—there are an uncommon number of gentle smiles, and many of them are Thirlby’s—from emphatic sound design to precise framings, Nobody Walks is decidedly a movie about variations (and variables) of feeling and sensation. It leaves a bittersweet bruise.

Below, For Sundance, Russo-Young talks process.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas