'The Nowhere Inn': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Silly surrealism.

Carrie Brownstein and St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) play versions of themselves in this meta-narrational jeu d'esprit directed by Bill Benz.

A mock-mockumentary, if you will, The Nowhere Inn aims to send up the cliches and mannerisms of music documentaries. But it's also doing exactly what the format has always done: promoting a star by distributing a film tie-in designed to boost album sales, radio play (or streaming these days) and concerts. Like Schrodinger's cat, the beast in the box that's both alive and dead because we don't know until we open the container, The Nowhere Inn is simultaneously satire and fan service, frothy fun and pretentious nonsense, depending on what the viewer wants it to be.

The performer seemingly revealing herself, but also performing a fan dance with identity, is Annie Clark, who goes by the name St. Vincent as a performer, a rock-pop singer-songwriter known for her sexy-neurotic persona and impressive vocal range. The film's conceit is that while touring to promote her album Masseducation with her three backing musicians, Clark has hired her friend, the musician-actor Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia, Transparent), also playing a version of herself, to direct a documentary about the tour and the scene backstage.

Seizing an opportunity to build some experience as she transitions into directing, Brownstein faces one big problem: Underneath all that latex and lipstick, Clark is actually quite dull, devoted to her strict exercise regimen and eating different kinds of radish for kicks. Touring isn't anywhere near as glamorous or sexy as people think. Even her bandmates are hard-pressed to say anything interesting about her.

Encouraged by Brownstein to spice things up a bit, Clark becomes progressively more monstrous as the film goes on. Soon Clark's inner raging narcissist emerges — for instance, when she demands that an obviously uncomfortable Brownstein film her and her girlfriend Dakota Johnson, also playing a character called "Dakota Johnson," as they get it on wearing some very expensive-looking lingerie. If nothing else, Clark is stunning to look at and knows how to makes outrageous clothes work for her with an ineffable, couldn't-give-a-shit insouciance. She's like a woman doing female drag. It's fun, but at times the film begins to resemble one of the thinly plotted but lushly shot supposedly edgy fashion films released to tell the brand's "story" that season.

This camp craziness, which grows more mannered and surreal as the film goes on, doesn't sit that well with the more serious subplot that sees Brownstein fretting over her cancer-stricken father and generally feeling angsty about what she's doing. The two women are both credited as the film's screenwriters, and one might conjecture they each went off to write their own bits for the movie and then left director Bill Benz, making his feature debut after shooting episodes of Portlandia and other TV, to find a way to make it work in post.

All the same, Benz and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl have a bit of fun with different film stocks and formats, creating a varied texture that ranges from Super 8 grainy to lush ultra-high definition. The editing rolls the story along sufficiently so that as long as viewers aren't too bothered by the self-indulgent descents down narrative rabbit holes, it's a jolly enough way to spend 91 minutes.

Fans hoping to get a more intimate look into the real Clark's private life, an object of tabloid fascination given she's not just dated Brownstein herself at one point but also Kristen Stewart and Cara Delevingne, will be disappointed not to get more scoop. But then again, the teasing and withholding is also part of the fun.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight) 
Cast: Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Ezra Buzzington, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquilino, Drew Connick, Michael Bofshever
Production: A Topic, Ways & Means, Crazy Galore Production
Director: Bill Benz
Screenwriters: Carrie Brownstein, Annie Clark
Producers: Annie Clark, Carrie Brownstein, Lana Kim, Jett Steiger
Executive producers: Michael Bloom, Maria Zuckerman, Ryan Heller, Bobcat Goldthwait, Adam Pincus
Director of photography: Minka Farthing-Kohl
Production designer: Grace Alie
Costume designer: Natalie O'Brien
Editor: Ali Greer
Music: St. Vincent
Casting: Mark Bennett
Sales: Endeavor, Paradigm
No rating; 91 minutes