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.
You can neither make beautiful, great movies without risk as you can make babies without sex. Risk is part of the artistic process. That’s why I like performance, because performance is walking a high wire.
~ Francis Coppola
“Probably the most heralded movie I’ve ever been in was Forrest Gump. While I was sitting on the park bench, I asked Bob, ‘Is anyone going to care about this guy?’ He said, ‘I don’t know Tom. It’s a mine field. It’s a fucking mine field.’ So when it works, you just say, ‘We dodged all the mines.'”
~ Tom Hanks