In his sixth feature The Sunlit Night, David Wnendt casts Jenny Slate as Frances, a young painter who takes a spontaneous voyage to Norway to help out another artist. It’s a pretty film on the surface, but its thoughtfulness is wasted under the complications of a jumbled narrative. Too many threads tangle together without forming a pattern, and while there are flickers of feeling scattered through, it’s a shame that these lovely fragments of life never make up a whole.
Frances is a young painter who, in the first ten minutes of the film, is dumped by her boyfriend, told her sister is getting married in the midst of a parental divorce, and gets a rejection from a residency in Tokyo she was depending on. So, she takes the next best thing: heading off to Norway to paint a barn yellow. Her not-so-glamorous expectations fall even lower when her boss (Fridtjoy Såheim) quickly becomes tired of her talkative nature and she’s laden with long working hours that limit her ability to work on her own art. But these challenges will lead her down an unexpected path to meet a stranger, Yasha, (Alex Sharp) who’s even more lost than her, and realise that sometimes life is just a mess—and that’s the fun of it.
The film makes an effort to use the interpretation of fine art to create a thought-provoking tale of an artist growing accustomed to failure both in her career and personal life. It’s a story we’re familiar with, but it’s honestly harder to go along with when Frances doesn’t seem that much of a failure. Sure, she isn’t getting the jobs she’s applying for and her parents think she’s stuck, but it rings truer to the current landscape of the arts than any personal misstep Frances has made. When you pair that with the somewhat ill-timed rom-com that arises upon meeting Yasha as he prepares to say goodbye to his late father with a traditional Viking funeral, the atmosphere starts to crumble and the plot goes with it.
What’s perhaps most disappointing is seeing Jenny Slate so tame. Her spark of brilliant ingenuity is still there, but it’s left idle in the comedic moments that have the chance to give life to the film. It’s definitely a different role than what we’ve seen her take on in the past— and one that you can see she can handle—but Slate isn’t really given the breathing room to have a good shot at it. The supporting cast, including Alex Sharp, Zack Galifianakis and a bizarrely off-beat Gillian Anderson, likewise feel somewhat one-dimensional. Their roles are amusing, but functional props to give Frances stepping-stones in her journey. Jenny Slate is absolutely the anchor, but the storm is raging pretty hard even for her.
The crux of The Sunlit Night’s downfall is its story: everything just moves too fast. The narrative gets to its point quickly, but its foundations are too shaky to hold up much substance. There isn’t the breathing room for jokes to be funny and the romantic edge is hard to invest in. At a run-time of 82 minutes, it wouldn’t have hurt to let some shots play a bit longer just to give the audience a moment to look at the beautiful things Frances creates with her paintbrush. The only moments things slow down are during little Wes Anderson-esque inserts of iconic paintings paired with Slate’s bright narration. These segments are actually a nice idea (if a little clumsily put together) but still the audience lacks the ability to rest and observe —ironically, in the way art so heavily relies upon— because of the speedy structure.
Director Wnendt knows how to use a striking landscape and when to let Slate take charge of a scene, but there’s too much of a rush to reach the resolution for it to touch the audience emotionally. The Viking village-slash-museum, that seems so interestingly out of place at the beginning, is a curious addition to the story that sadly ends up pointless other than offering a few pretty shots of a Viking funeral at sunset. Really, that sums up the whole approach to this random combination of ideas that make up the film and never quite come to fruition.
The Sunlit Night is available on VOD from July 17th
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.