'The Weekend': Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
'The Weekend'
Fresh and funny.

Former 'Saturday Night Live' regular Sasheer Zamata plays a stand-up comic hauling the baggage of a defunct relationship on a getaway trip where old and new flames collide in Stella Meghie's romantic comedy.

Ever since her well-received 2016 debut, Jean of the Joneses, Canadian writer-director Stella Meghie has acknowledged the formative influence of watching Woody Allen and Spike Lee movies when she was growing up. There are echoes of the breezier work of both those filmmakers in Meghie's slender but entertaining third feature, The Weekend. A chamber piece that unfolds chiefly in the Chekhovian setting of a persimmon orchard cloaked in soft autumn light, the romantic comedy is laced with tart humor and sharp observations about black female identity, the majority of them delivered with spiky insouciance by Sasheer Zamata.

The Saturday Night Live alumna's talents too often went underutilized during her tenure of just over three years on the show. So it’s a pleasure to see her carrying a feature that gives her room to build a fully formed character who masks her chronic dissatisfaction behind a veneer of flippant self-deprecation. Onstage, she describes herself as a supporting character in someone else's romantic comedy, but she owns this one.

This is a small, agreeably unslick film, obviously made on a limited budget, and its commercial outlook will be accordingly modest. But there’s a lot to enjoy here in the performances of an appealing ensemble and the teasing, testy romantic badinage in which they engage.

Meghie gets things off to a slightly shaky start with the overfamiliar framing device of a stand-up set, during which Zadie (Zamata) muses on the acceptable expiration date for pathetic behavior in the wake of a breakup. Hers has been going on for three years, she admits, and she seems neither proud nor ashamed of it. The material is not as funny as the audience laughter in the venue would suggest, but it’s serviceable enough in establishing where 29-year-old Zadie is at in her "very single" life.

The comedy picks up immediately when she gets in the car with ex-boyfriend Bradford (Tone Bell), making it clear she’s still sweet on him with her gift of Junior Mints and a signed first edition of the seminal African-American history text The Souls of Black Folk. (In a moment of irritation later on, she sneers at his whole "tired Gordon Parks-collecting Renaissance man" thing.) He claims to want to be friends and has insisted on inviting along Zadie's replacement, Margo (DeWanda Wise, who plays Nola Darling on Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It), for the weekend, in the hope that they might start playing nice together. But the friction is immediately apparent when preening Margo pulls rank and exiles Zadie to the back seat so she can sit up front and canoodle with Bradford.

Their destination is a homey B&B on a pretty countryside estate run by Zadie's salty mother, Karen (Kym Whitley), who sizes up her sloppily dressed daughter and says by way of a greeting: "It’s not nice for a young girl to give up." The reception she gives Margo is no kinder, though she clearly has a soft spot for Bradford.

Things get complicated when hunky paying guest Aubrey (Y'lan Noel from Insecure) turns up solo, the details of his recent breakup giving Zadie the satisfaction of meeting someone more pathetic than she is. But when an instant spark ignites between them, Bradford suddenly gets jealous, creating friction with Margo and fueling Zadie's exasperation. Meanwhile, the absence of her father, supposedly on a fishing trip, turns out to be not what it seems.

Meghie breaks down the action with onscreen headers marking the three days, morning and evening, as the couples draw together and pull apart over miscommunications or clumsy insensitivity, and various uneasy truths are aired.

The one constant in the middle of it all is Zadie's refusal to filter her snarky comments or tone down her sometimes aggressive behavior. She seems most comfortable when making everyone else uncomfortable. Yet the terrific Zamata keeps her from becoming too abrasive by showing that, as much as Bradford or any other man has ever let her down, she's also her own worst enemy. When Karen tells her she needs to take responsibility for herself and grow up, she has a point, and ultimately, the movie becomes as much about Zadie trying to follow that advice as landing the right man.

It's a plus that the writer-director refuses to judge her characters. OK, maybe just a little when it's merited, as Bradford's motives come into question for keeping Zadie around while holding off on committing to Margo.

Some of the physical comedy, like an attempted makeout session in the back of Aubrey's car, comes off as forced, and the film starts to feel mechanical when the four main characters take a long walk and keep reforming into different subgroups. The editing is not as fluid as it could be, notably in a tense dinner scene with inelegant jump cuts. But the film's rough edges only add to its charms, chief among them the witty dialogue, distinctly drawn characters and extremely likable cast. An eclectic score by Robi Botos that leans heavily into jazz wraps it all up with just the right playful energy.

Production companies: Marada Pictures, in association with Homegrown Pictures
Cast: Sasheer Zamata, Tone Bell, DeWanda Wise, Y’lan Noel, Kym Whitley
Director-screenwriter: Stella Meghie
Producers: Stephanie Allain, Mel Jones, Sarah Lazow, James Gibb
Director of photography: Kris Belchevski
Production designers: Michele Yu, Cindy Chao
Costume designer: Antoinette Messam
Music: Robi Botos
Editor: Shannon Baker Davis
Sales: CAA, UTA
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)

86 minutes