“It’s lazy,” a critic in “The Sunlit Night” implores. “It’s not lazy, it just doesn’t work,” says another. “Well, it leaves me cold and wanting more,” adds a third, who is obviously upset with the painting in front of them. Unfortunately for director David Wendt, they could also be discussing and reviewing the Arctic Norway-set “The Sunlight Night,” which offers no warmth and leaves you yearning for something more substantial.
While it can seem like a cheap shot to turn a film’s script against it, this paint-by-the-numbers melodrama edges so close to self-parody that it only seems fair to turn its dialogue into a weapon. Based on Rebecca Dinerstein’s novel of the same name, “The Sunlit Night” dreams of wrapping prose, poetry and painting all into one package, which is a promising and ambitious approach. But getting audiences to respond to dialogue like “it’s so beautiful, it’s almost like a bad painting” is unlikely.
Jenny Slate stars as Frances, a painting student who is having a really bad day. She is harshly critiqued by her professors (see the first paragraph), dumped by her boyfriend, learns that her parents are separating, and finds a leech stuck on her upper thigh. Yikes! Mostly ignored by New York artists, she casts her eye abroad, where she finds a gig in Norway with a has-been artist named Nils (Fridtjov Saheim). Her job is to help Nils paint a barn different shades of yellow. It’s not exactly Paris, but it will have to do.
At first, there’s a certain charm to the fish-out-of-water premise, in which Frances is a bright, energetic American in a land of stone-faced Norwegians. Frances and Nils are polar opposites, so when she washes up on shore with questions, it’s funny to watch him act as he has never met an extrovert before. Nils is tough on Frances. The two work from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M. They don’t talk. They don’t eat together. And they certainly don’t sleep together, let alone near each other (he makes her sleep in an RV near the house).
Dinerstein reportedly wrote the script in Norway while staying with a local, and that personal connection to her story and heroine shows. In small moments, Frances’ quirks, anxieties, and youthful uncertainties are sketched with the honesty of a self-portrait. Dinerstein is a writer who isn’t afraid to put herself out there, leeches and all. But you wish the story around Frances was just as focused. There are too many subplots that surface along Norway’s coast, and while many are played for laughs, none add to Frances’ self-discovery. The whole story becomes confusing and contradictory.
Meanwhile, “The Sunlight Night” is side-tracked by side characters, who don’t mesh well with Frances’ personality. She is devoted to her art, so why would she run off with the boy, Yasha (Alex Sharp)? And why does she ditch work to hang out at a nearby Viking Museum, where Yahsa, who she barely knows, attends his father’s funeral? Besides cameos from Gillian Anderson and Zach Galifianakis, most plot threads lead to predictable, forgettable dead ends.
“The Sunlit Night” is a wonderfully shot film— Norwegian “nights” when the sun stays out forever is rather gorgeous— and captures how nature can inspire an artist to do great things. Unfortunately, its strengths end there and the rest of the film is bogged down by clunky dialogue and shaky plotting. Don’t blame Slate for Frances’ perplexing behavior (that’s on Dinerstein and director David Windedt). Her performance is wistful, vividly illuminated by cinematographer Martin Ahlgren‘s sumptuous imagery. He creates some truly amazing landscapes. But, as Nils says at one point, “We do not use the word amazing. This is hard work. You are going to hate it.” Seriously? Are these characters writing the review for us? [C-]