Artfully constructed but hollow at its core, "Nobody Walks" makes it impossible to stop watching while simultaneously making it impossible to care about what's happening.
It's a frustrating little paradox. This languid slice of Los Angeles life features an appealing cast of actors playing characters who are all surface and impulse — someone is constantly coming onto someone else — but their actions seem to carry low stakes. It's a sensory experience, featuring an intriguing use of sound design, but any tension that arises ultimately feels like it's in the service of nothing.
This is especially true of its central character, who is also its biggest weakness. Olivia Thirlby stars as Martine, a 23-year-old experimental filmmaker visiting from New York to finish a project for a gallery installation. That the young woman who's the catalyst for the movie's domestic upheaval is such an enigma is baffling, given that "Nobody Walks" comes from two young women who've established voices of their own: director Ry Russo-Young and her co-writer, the acclaimed "Girls" creator Lena Dunham.
From the second Martine steps off the plane in L.A., guys are hitting on her for reasons that are difficult to fathom; she has a certain urban cool about her, but what defines and drives her remains elusive, even as she fine-tunes the film that brought her across the country.
Martine is staying at the stylish, spacious, mid-century modern home of Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), a therapist who's a friend of a friend, and her husband, Peter (John Krasinski), the sound designer who's helping her with her short: a stark, black-and-white meditation on insects. (If nothing else, the visuals from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt are always striking.)
Also living there are Kolt (India Ennenga), Julie's intellectual, 16-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and the couple's young son. A couple of other men traipse in and out: Peter's blonde, muscular assistant (Rhys Wakefield) and Kolt's skeevy Italian tutor (Emanuele Secci). Kolt also has a sweetly nerdy, sorta-boyfriend at school.
Every interaction is sexually charged to some extent, which provides some intrigue but not a consistent amount. Some of the best scenes involve the one character who really does assert himself: a no-nonsense, quick-witted screenwriter (Justin Kirk) who's one of Julie's patients and, increasingly and insistently, her admirer.
Martine's arrival, ostensibly, stirs all the curiosities and spurs the shenanigans that play out over the film's brief running time — which would make sense if there were more to her. The fact that Martine doesn't register is no fault of Thirlby, who once again reveals a versatility and an eclectic taste in film choices (her last role was in the action spectacle "Dredd 3D"). The character is a collection of quirks, from her preferred style of jeans to her inability to drive, being a proud, true New Yorker. The title refers only partly to the fact that nobody walks in L.A., as the old Missing Persons song goes.
Maybe she's drawn in intentionally vague fashion to suggest the illusory nature of attraction, but it doesn't give us much to hold onto. There's ambiguity, and then there's just flat-out emptiness. No more so is this evident than at the very end, where it's difficult to determine whether Martine grasps the impact of her actions, or even cares.
"Nobody Walks," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R for sexuality, language and some drug use. Running time: 82 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.