'The Sunlit Night': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An awkward jump from page to screen, but it's pretty.

'Wetlands' director David Wnendt sends Jenny Slate to Norway for a find-yourself summer in his light rom-com.

Say what you will about Wetlands, the audience-dividing film that introduced Sundancers to director David Wnendt in 2014; that film's singular blend of the revolting and the sweet made an oddly ideal showcase for its effervescent lead Carla Juri. Sadly, the same can't be said of The Sunlit Night, which promised to shine Norway's 24-hour summer spotlight on Jenny Slate, who hasn't yet had a roundly crowd-pleasing vehicle to capitalize on the cool-kids success of Obvious Child. As a failing painter who flees her life for a crap job in rural Norway, Slate gives her best to an underdeveloped role that was likely deeper in the novel by Rebecca Dinerstein, who makes her screenwriting debut with this adaptation.

After one hell of a bad day in New York, Slate's Frances rushes off to the woman whose art internship she just turned down and says she'll take whatever job nobody else wants. Told there's an artist in Norway who needs an assistant, she expects Oslo; what she gets is a dumpy camper trailer near the top of the world, where there's just one grocery store and Viking cosplayers seemingly outnumber ordinary Norwegians.

Her inhospitable host, who's behind schedule on a public art project, expects her to work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. applying various shades of yellow paint to a decaying barn. But Frances is distracted by the Viking museum adjacent to the barn, one of those places where staffers dress in ancient garb and show how life was once lived. The place's chief, why not, is a guy from Cincinnati — Zach Galifianakis, playing a man who's a little too committed to his job.

Early fish-out-of-water scenes here have an easygoing appeal. But wherever you go in search of exotic charm, you just can't escape Americans: Before she can settle into the local flow, Frances meets an anemic young guy from New York (Alex Sharp's Yasha) who has come to bury his Russian-immigrant dad in the remote land he always wanted to see. Most people would just cremate their loved one and tote ashes to the desired locale, but Yasha has a corpse, and the Vikings have agreed to host a ceremonial pyre.

The film requires us to imagine for ourselves how this boy's grief and need provoke so many longing gazes from Frances. No meaningful conversation causes the two to connect, and there will be no signs of physical chemistry before, some time from now, they decide to get naked in the yellow barn.

But perhaps there was some heart-to-heart talk that hit the cutting room floor. By the film's midpoint, viewers will already have noticed five or so scenes (most in close-up) in which a character's lips don't match the ADR dialogue. Elsewhere, editing cuts abruptly away so we don't again catch somebody's lips moving strangely.

It's hard to guess what the original dialogue must've said that played so badly, but there's a distinct feeling of off-ness before the arrival of Gillian Anderson, who is not unenjoyably hammy as the Russian-accented mother Yasha hasn't seen in a decade. She flirts with the chief Viking for a while, then has a rich husband arrive, at which point the movie's dots really do stop connecting.

Slate and Sharp (a Tony winner for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) can't be blamed for their lack of chemistry, and if sparks aren't flying between them, at least viewers can occasionally drown in gorgeous coastal scenery, shot nicely by Martin Ahlgren. The movie reaches a couple of semi-natural ending points but doesn't stop, presumably (and unwisely) trying to squash in plot points from the novel before the credits finally roll. At least nobody thought to license Coldplay's "Yellow" for the tie-it-all-together sun-colored final image.

Production companies: Ape&Bjorn, Detailfilm
Cast: Jenny Slate, Zach Galifianakis, Alex Sharp, Gillian Anderson, Fridtjov Saheim, David Paymer
Director: David Wnendt
Screenwriter: Rebecca Dinerstein
Producers: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub, Gabrielle Nadig, Jenny Slate, Fabian Gasmia, Ruben Thorkildsen
Director of photography: Martin Ahlgren
Production designers: Kristine Wilhelmsen, Katie Hickman
Costume designer: Stacey Berman
Editor: Andreas Wodraschke
Composer: Enis Rotthoff
Casting directors: Kate Geller, Jessica Kelly
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: Endeavor, ICM

In English and Norwegian
109 minutes