Most Lynn Shelton movies don't feel like movies at all. That's a good thing. Often set in the Northwest, where the indie writer-director lives, her typical project is a largely ad-libbed, minimally plotted, casually costumed affair that's so naturalistic, it just feels like life. But while her technique is intentionally loose, her insights are finely crafted, particularly when it comes to relationships. No filmmaker is better at capturing the awkwardness of friendships that might seem a little wrong to anyone not directly involved. Her latest film, Laggies, should've served her vision well because it's about a grown woman who hangs out with a high school kid. Yet it's Shelton's most commercial work to date, and that dilutes much of her usual charm.
Laggies is the first of Shelton's films that she didn't write herself. Young-adult author Andrea Seigel penned the screenplay, which could have offered a fresh take on a May-September friendship, the kind that's rarely shared between women on screen. At 28, Megan (Keira Knightley) is living with her high school sweetheart, Anthony (Mark Webber), and working for her dad (Jeff Garlin). All of her friends are getting married. (Ellie Kemper plays a one-note bridezilla who can't stop raising her eyebrows, jutting out her jaw, and whisper-screaming at Megan for, say, failing to toss rose petals on the marital bed.) But the thought of getting engaged fills Megan with panic. So when she meets teenage Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), she decides to stop acting her age. She buys Annika beer, helps her toilet-paper someone's house, and ditches career counseling to crash at her new pal's place and flirt with her dad, Craig (Sam Rockwell). A more traditional love story takes over, and then we're treated to a slew of clichés, including a dressing-room scene with frilly gowns, a last-minute romantic epiphany at the airport, and a prom-night climax. It's disappointing that Shelton has Megan buck convention, only to stick her in a pretty conventional movie.
What saves Laggies is Knightley, who's all gangly limbs and pouty faces, schlepping around in pajamas, acting exactly like a teenager trapped in a grown-up world. She's better at physical comedy than one might expect from an actress who's spent so much time in a corset. And she clearly relishes the scenes where she gets to dance on the street or tweak the nipples of a Buddha statue. In Knightley's hands, Megan seems so comfortable being young and free, it's hard to understand why she even needs a boyfriend, or what she sees in Anthony or Craig. Plus, the fantasy that either guy might save Megan from her floundering feels like a cop-out for Shelton, that rare director who understands complex female characters. Besides, the implication is troubling: What will make a woman truly grow up? Choosing a man. B