Since the beginning of the mumblecore movement in the 2000s, independent cinema has been saturated with stories of young (often white) people in their 20s in a state of arrested development. For these people, adulthood is a playground characterized by risk-taking and pontificating about the state of their romantic relationships. With spare lighting and naturalistic camera movements, these films attempt to mimic the rawness of real life, adding weight to the mundane. Though the movement has already passed, these stories continue to thrive at festivals.
In Lisa Steen’s feature directorial debut Late Bloomers, millennial angst is once again at the center of a deeply personal, minimalist story. Karen Gillan plays Louise, an aimless and depressed musician in her 20s struggling to get past a painful breakup. When she discovers that her ex-boyfriend is moving on without her, Louise tries to drunkenly climb into his apartment through the window. Falling and injuring her hip, she is forced to start doing physical therapy with a group of elderly women. This puts her quarter-life crisis in perspective, forcing Louise to re-evaluate her dour, nihilistic outlook.
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Louise quickly finds herself connecting to Antonina (Margaret Sophie Stein), a surly Polish woman who doesn’t speak a word of English. Despite the language barrier, the two women bond emotionally. Louise is protective of Antonina and seems to believe that she knows what’s best for the older woman, despite barely knowing how to take care of herself. Her roommate (Jermaine Fowler) encourages Louise to use this recovery time for her body as an excuse to heal her mind as well. But much like her older friend, Louise is too stubborn to take any advice.
Despite the uniqueness of the characters’ friendship, Steen’s direction underserves the emotion in their scenes. This is an intimate story, but the camera feels oddly distant from the emotional core of each scene. There’s a sense of remove in the film that obscures the performances and mutes the dialogue. Screenwriter Anne Greenfield tries to juggle several heavy emotional ideas with minimal melodrama. The film’s supporting cast — which includes Kevin Nealon and Talia Balsam as Louise’s parents — does their best with a script that seems to actively avoid its own drama with oppressive vagueness.
Late Bloomers does have some nice flourishes — the moments with the older women at the pool are full of humor and personality, hinting at a stronger ensemble narrative hiding just beneath the surface. Scenes with Louise and her roommate are less effective, lacking the specificity necessary to make their banter work. Fowler too often plays underwritten side characters, underutilizing his comedic potential. Stein fares better as Antonina, expressive enough to add layers to a somewhat difficult role. And yet, there’s something about Louise and Antonina’s friendship that doesn’t quite ring true. All the pieces are there, but Late Bloomers ultimately fails to sell the film’s core relationship.
With her previous forays into independent cinema like Dual and her directorial debut The Party’s Just Beginning, Gillan has perfected a disaffected, Daria-like persona. Here, she’s at her most opaque, her motives and choices never quite giving way to a deeper character. Only during one moment do we catch a glimpse of who Louise was before this crossroads in her life: a heartfelt scene where she sings a song for her mother while playing acoustic guitar. With her eyes focused and heart open, Louise serenades her ailing mother in the visiting area of her care facility. It’s the kind of moment films like these are made for.