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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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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

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“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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