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TORONTO – In Lucky Them, a rock critic is forced to revisit her past and consider its toll on her emotional life, ten years after being dumped by a musician whose unexplained disappearance fueled his cult status. While the set-up of Megan Griffiths’ mellow comedy-drama is a little labored, the performances are so engaging and the characters so pleasurable to be around that it’s easy to forget the script’s flaws. Centered by smart, soulful work from the wonderful Toni Collette, the movie includes an unbilled star cameo that’s a perfect piece of casting, in a scene that adds real feeling to the story’s outcome.
Collette plays Stax Magazine writer Ellie Klug, a character based on Emily Wachtel, who co-wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay with Huck Botko. A connoisseur of the Seattle alternative-rock scene, Ellie has had a string of flings with younger local musicians, but she lives alone with her vinyl collection.
Feeling the pressure of dwindling sales, her editor Giles (Oliver Platt) assigns her to do a ten-year anniversary feature on the legacy of revered music icon Matthew Smith, and the persistent rumors that despite not being seen or heard from in a decade, he’s alive. The fact that he was Ellie’s longtime boyfriend when he went missing makes her reluctant to open old wounds, but Giles informs her that she needs to produce or perish.
She starts investigating leads from a website devoted to Matthew Smith sightings, and her gullibility in following one of these seems out of character for a woman so jaded and savvy. Having established their plot driver, Botko and Wachtel don’t seem to know how to tease it out, following the trail of the lost singer-songwriter only in fits and starts.
Ellie procrastinates over the assignment by easing into a romance with Lucas (Ryan Eggold), a talented musician who makes use of her industry contacts but also seems to be genuinely into her. That relationship stirs some sexy chemistry into the movie, while the arrival of Charlie (Thomas Haden Church) brings an invigorating jolt of off-kilter comic energy.
A retired software squillionaire, Charlie dated Ellie a couple of times years back when he was emotionally unavailable. “But I’m cooler now,” the earnest oddball assures her. Fresh from a community college documentary filmmaking course, Charlie decides to fund Ellie’s Matthew Smith research in exchange for being allowed to make a film about her. They set out across Washington in a new luxury RV he buys for the project, stopping at the weight-loss camp where Ellie and Matthew met, the bar where he played his first gig and the spectacular falls where the musician is believed to have committed suicide.
Griffiths and the screenwriters have trouble dividing their focus between the Matthew investigation and the romantic derailments of Ellie as she inadvertently sabotages the Lucas connection, and Charlie as he hurtles into marriage with a flaky woman he just met (Ahna O’Reilly). But while the storytelling doesn’t follow a straight path, Collette and Church are both so terrific they keep it on track.
Unlike so many contrived indie efforts, the movie’s eccentricities are an integral part of its world, and nowhere is that more the case than in Church’s inspired characterization. He puts a consistently inventive spin on his hilarious line readings, managing to register guileless seriousness and sly self-irony at the same time.
Charlie’s theory about relationships is that if they can be boiled down to a single sentence they are doomed. Only the complex couple dynamics that defy easy categorization can last. In a sense that’s why Lucky Them remains captivating, because it refuses to be pinned down into a rigid template.
Ultimately, it’s about Ellie’s gradual reckoning with the limbo she’s been in for a decade, ever since Matthew left her hanging, and her slow realization that remaining even subconsciously stuck on a past love blocks the chance of something new. Whether Ellie is coasting above the mess of her life, floundering in it or owning up to her faults, Collette plays her with warmth, realness and emotional transparency that make you stay with her even when she’s pushing people away.
The film is well acted all around, with appealing work from easy-on-the-eye Eggold, prickly humor from Platt in his handful of scenes, and a nice edge to Nina Arianda’s presence as Ellie’s bartender pal. It also looks aces; Ben Kutchins’ crisp digital cinematography captures the Seattle hipster milieu in sharp colors, shifting to softer natural light out in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Cast: Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Ryan Eggold, Nina Arianda, Oliver Platt, Ahna O’Reilly, Gary Gulman, Amy Seimetz
Production companies: Mymy Productions, in association with Tangerine Entertainment
Director: Megan Griffiths
Screenwriters: Huck Botko, Emily Wachtel
Producer: Adam Gibbs, Amy Hobby, Emily Wachtel
Executive producers: Joanne Woodward, Peer Pedersen, Megan Foley, Linda Henry, Tucker Wilson
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: John Lavin
Music: Craig Wedren
Costume designer: Rebecca Luke
Editor: Meg Reticker
Sales: Cinetic Media
No rating, 96 minutes.
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