October is normally a time for watching movies through your fingers, knowing something grim is about to happen. Ry Russo-Young's new film, Nobody Walks, is no exception — except that at a horror movie, you're guarding against images that are sure to be terrifying. In this intimate, quietly compelling indie drama, they're mortifying.
That should come as no surprise after a quick glance at the writing credits for the film: Russo-Young co-wrote the film with Lena Dunham, the young writer-director of Tiny Furniture and the HBO series Girls, both of which trade in frank depictions of the more embarrassing and messy aspects of love and sex.
And it doesn't get much messier than in Nobody Walks, a film in which everyone is lusting after the wrong person, and consummating those desires tends to lead to awkward — but not funny, unlike Dunham's usual projects — disasters of various scales.
Olivia Thirlby plays Martine, a young artist and experimental filmmaker from New York; she's visiting Los Angeles to work on the sound design for her first film with Peter (John Krasinski). He's a Hollywood sound man doing the job pro bono because Martine and his therapist wife, Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), have a mutual friend. Martine will prove the roving epicenter of a sexual earthquake, the first rumblings of which appear to have been heard long before her arrival.
Peter falls for Martine, much to the consternation of Julie, who treats their potential affair as an inevitability: She's attracted to Martine too, she says, and asks only that Peter not embarrass her. Peter's assistant, David (Rhys Wakefield), also develops a thing for Martine, which doesn't make Julie's daughter Kolt too happy, since she has an age-inappropriate crush on him.
Meanwhile, one of Julie's patients is revealing his own inappropriately lustful impulses during sessions, and Kolt's middle-aged creep of an Italian tutor is making her crush on David seem much less age-inappropriate by comparison.
Quite a few of these flirtations are consummated and considered, usually with disastrous results, especially for the central object of affection, Martine. Fresh out of a relationship in which her ex sued her for using nude images of him in her art, this Hollywood trip finds her distancing herself from a rough time, trying to find new creative life in her film, but also exercising the freedom of being away from home in her sex life.
Refreshingly, the film doesn't trade in easy labels or judgments. Other films might have cast Martine as a promiscuous home wrecker, Peter as either the callous cheater or the seduced victim, and Julie as the overwrought wronged woman. But Russo-Young's characters simply feel like complex, confused people trying desperately to be happy without also destroying their lives with their poor impulse control. No one here is completely innocent; more important, no one here really knows what they're doing.
The film nicely juxtaposes Kolt's adolescent fumblings with those of the adults around her. When Peter awkwardly follows Martine around at a party, very publicly forgetting his wife's request to avoid embarrassment, it has the feel of the awkwardness of the boy at the high school dance trying to be near the girl he likes. When Julie witnesses the whole scene, the sense of her quiet humiliation is nearly too much to watch.
Similarly, the jealousy Peter feels watching David drive Martine away in a vintage 1960s Oldsmobile Starfire — a cool-kid car if ever there was one — is that of the AV Club nerd seeing his crush drive off with the football captain. Our desires and emotions don't necessarily change as we get older, just what we're able to do about those feelings.
Structurally, Nobody Walks can seem as messy and lost as its characters; we move from episode to embarrassing episode without much of a story. But it's clear that Martine's presence is slowly widening cracks that already existed in this family. The question becomes how much damage can any of these bonds take before they're irreparable?
As the film nears its conclusion, the focus turns to fixing all of these relationships. These characters have been walking hand in hand to the brink of a cliff, leaning precariously over the edge, and seeing if they have the strength to pull back before gravity takes them all down.
That kind of willful impulse toward self-destruction, of which nearly everyone here is guilty in varying degrees, may be off-putting for some; there's no one here you don't want to shake some sense into at one time or another. But that imperfect humanity is also what makes them so watchable — even if sometimes they're about to screw up so badly that you have to cover your eyes.