Reviewed at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival.
“The New Year” is not a film that benefits from high expectations, an unfortunate situation Brett Haley’s delicate debut finds itself in, having been hailed as the buzziest film at this year’s L.A. Film Festival. Shot for $8,000 in only 12 days, it’s a modest character study that looks every bit its budget, but has one of the few things money can’t buy — a genuine starmaking turn from Trieste Kelly Dunn.
Festivalgoers might already be familiar with Dunn, thanks to a supporting turn in Aaron Katz’s lo-fi mystery “Cold Weather,” playing Bacall to Cris Lakenau’s slacker Bogart (minus the sexual tension — they’re siblings) and blasting her way through second-banana status on snark and stoicism.
In “The New Year,” she’s presented a similar opportunity to plunge into the confusion and restlessness of a post-collegiate funk as Sunny, the diligent daughter of a cancer-stricken college professor. She returns home to tend to her father and sprays the insides of bowling shoes at the local alley to support herself. The alley itself is a dying reminder of her high school glory days, the ball polisher screaming “Make It Happen” in fluorescent red and orange lights, even though “it” obviously won’t any time soon.
Dunn can roll her eyes and unsheathe a sharp one-liner with the best of them, but her most impressive feat with Sunny is expressing frustration while never showing defeat. She’s strong, to be sure, jousting daily with her father over things as banal as his TV habits and demonstrating an uncanny knack for throwing strikes when she finally gives into trying bowling for the first time.
Yet in her more quiet moments, there’s searching behind her eyes and a certain smokiness in her voice that suggest even as she’s experiencing a quarterlife crisis, the worst is already behind her.
It’s this same strength that dogs “The New Year” — Sunny’s central dilemma is choosing between two guys who can hardly keep up with her. That they seem to know it is a credit to co-writer/director Haley, but as in so many small-town-set tales, Sunny is forced to pick between the guy who represents staying around and the guy who represents heading somewhere new.
In this case, the divide’s embodied by Jane Austen-reading Tae Kwon Do instructor (and local boy) Neal (Kevin Wheatley) and Isaac (Ryan Hunter), a friend from high school whose new life in New York intrigues her to the point of laughing extra hard at his largely unfunny routine as a stand-up comedian.
As choices, both are well-balanced, amiable fellows, not like the ne’er do well husband of Sunny’s chatty best friend (Linda Lee McBride) who is used as the film’s yardstick (and comic relief). However, neither can match Sunny for dimension or depth, nor can the actors playing them quite match Dunn.
Perhaps such is the curse of building a film around an actress who runs with her performance as stridently as Dunn does. Haley’s smart enough to step back and let her do her thing. Moments that could be treacly between Sunny and her ailing father are unusually touching, and although Haley’s attempts at humor are sometimes crude, he generally goes for subtlety without ever being solemn, which separates “The New Year” from much of its low-budget brethren.
Still, the film belongs to Dunn, who tellingly interrupted her director during the Q & A of “The New Year”‘s third screening at the L.A. Film Fest and sweetly apologized, “Sorry, did I steal your spotlight?”
She did, and I suspect she’s not letting go any time soon.
“The New Year” does not yet have U.S. distribution.