'Carrie Pilby': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Not as smart as it thinks it is, but pleasant all the same.

Bel Powley from 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' plays another troubled teen in 'Carrie Pilby,' an adaptation of Caren Lissner's YA novel, co-starring Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane and Colin O’Donoghue.

Once again cast as a precocious teenager after her indelible turn in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, British actor Bel Powley stars as an intellectual prodigy in Carrie Pilby, a well-intentioned but imperfect young-adult-skewing comedy-drama. The directorial debut of producer Susan Johnson (she produced Mean Creek, among others), and adapted by Kara Holden from a novel by Caren Lissner, this New York City-set coming-of-age story will appeal to a specialist core of angst-ridden overachieving emo teens of all ages. That said, some may not be able to entirely suppress the creeping suspicion that, like the protagonist herself, this often tritely plotted tale is not half as clever or cute as it thinks it is. In all probability this will be a late-bloomer, likely to find its audience via post-theatrical platforms.

Nineteen years old and already a graduate of Harvard, Carrie (Powley) was born in London, but has lived in the U.S. since she was 12 or so, having moved there after her mother died. Her father (Gabriel Byrne) has moved back to Blighty for work, leaving Carrie to fend for herself in Manhattan with only a trust fund and a spacious studio apartment to sustain her. At least she has Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane, affable), a friend of the family who also happens to be a therapist, for free emotional support. In the introductory scenes, Carrie is met petulantly complaining to Petrov and dumping a raw turkey on his desk because Dad isn’t coming home for Thanksgiving this year.

Although she apparently has an IQ of 185, curmudgeonly Carrie hasn’t quite worked out that she’s a massively entitled brat. It’s a testament to Powley’s charms as an actor, thanks to innate charisma and rat-a-tat screwball line delivery (Carrie is a fan of Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films), that the film doesn’t become insufferable after 15 minutes. Thankfully, Holden’s script seems aware of its protagonist’s need for emotional growth, and as recent movie prodigies go, she’s at least a more plausibly flawed and funny creation than the Marxist Midwitch cuckoos in Captain Fantastic.

Conspiring in a way that’s unprofessional if not a bit creepy, Carrie’s father and Petrov team up to push Carrie forward. Her father insists she either accept a roommate or take a job proofreading legal documents for a law firm at night. Meanwhile, Petrov gives her a list of goals to achieve between now and Christmas, tasks which include “making a friend,” “going on a date,” and “doing something which made her happy as a child.” Although “having an epiphany” and “learning to love oneself” are not additional stated objectives here, they might as well be.

At its worst, the film oozes the sickly smugness of a self-help pamphlet, but when it relaxes its didactic grip and lets the actors take control it can be quite charming. Powley verbally spars elegantly with her co-stars, and the best scenes are the volleys of banter back and forth between her and Carrie’s potential suitors, first Jason Ritter, nervy as an MIT grad with whom Carrie goes on a blind date, and then William Moseley as the music geek boy next door. Moseley and Powley’s walk-and-talk single-shot perambulation around the block is one of the movie’s highlights. Vanessa Bayer also charms as a co-worker perpetually hung up on her ex-boyfriend.

Flashbacks involving Colin O’Donoghue (Once Upon a Time) as Carrie’s professor/lover are less satisfying, partly because it’s hard to believe that an academic in this day and age would so blithely risk his career to sleep with a 16-year-old student however cute she might be. Also, the fact that J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey turns out to be Carrie’s favorite book is a too on-the-nose and at the same time unlikely choice for a teenager these days. The whole scenario feels like it belongs in a film set 20 or 30 years ago. 

Gonzalo Amat’s creamy cinematography and savvy costume and production design from Leslie Yarmo and Curt Beech, respectively, help to smooth down the rough edges. The transition from neutral-toned rectilinear patterns — all plaids and waffle fabrics — to splashes of color (sparkly, peachy-gold eyeshadow!) in Carrie’s wardrobe and surroundings gently suggests her softening and opening up to the world.

Production companies: A Braveart/SMF/Storefront Pictures production
Cast: Bel Powley, Vanessa Bayer, Colin O’Donoghue, William Moseley, Jason Ritter, Desmin Borges, Poorna Jagannathan, Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane
Director: Susan Johnson
Screenwriters: Kara Holden, based on the novel by Caren Lissner
Producers: Suzanne Farwell, Susan Johnson, Susan Cartsonis, Brent Emery, Lisa Wolofsky
Executive producers: Teri Simpson, Elaine Harris, Edith Myers, Nick Quested
Director of photography: Gonzalo Amat
Production designer: Curt Beech
Costume designer: Leslie Yarmo
Editor: Philip J. Bartell
Music: Michael Penn
Music supervisor: Gary Calamar
Casting: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent
Venue: Toronto International FIlm Festival

Sales: Radiant Films International

No rating, 98 minutes

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