The debut feature from Michelle Savill is a star vehicle for Ana Scotney.
When Millie (Ana Scotney) gets a fancy internship at a fancy New York architecture firm, she becomes the envy of her friends, school, and community. She gets featured in commercials and brochures for her school, her hair straightened out to something almost unrecognizable. She gets a spot on the local news as her best friend and rival, Carolyn (Jillian Nguyen), tries to reassess her own architecture work, which she believes Millie has copied. And she gets plastered on a huge billboard in the Wellington airport — where she’s secretly hiding out after forcing her way off her flight, panic-stricken and out thousands as she begins to craft an Instagram-worthy image of her new life in New York.
A lie spinning out of control is a solid comedy premise: The more Millie lies, the more she must continue lying to maintain her situation, concocting scenarios that start off clever and grow increasingly concerning. After editing herself into generic photos of Times Squares, Millie spends her dwindling dollars on bags of flour so she can roll around on gravel and create faux snow angels. Her posts seem to work on her peers, including Carolyn; one shot of Millie smiling, her face lit up only by her phone’s notifications of likes rolling in, is a delight both of lighting design and of character insight. As the film goes on and Millie runs out of places to hide, her actions grow more and more confusing: Why would she steal a camping tent from her parents’ backyard shed and hide in the woods rather than in the shed? Why would she sneak back into Carolyn’s house after a party she’d attended in a Daft Punk-like disguise? Millie isn’t some sociopath intent on deceiving her friends for the sake of it — she screwed up and she’s embarrassed. She avoids moving forward only because she can’t turn back time and stay on the plane. In the most ridiculous and untenable situation, Millie becomes a highly relatable protagonist.
Scotney carries the film, which played Berlinale last month before heading to SXSW, as a woman in self-imposed isolation, navigating anxiety, lackluster romance, and the crushing weight of unfulfilled expectations in a 100-minute sojourn. She revels in a sense of self-destruction that begets more bad decisions as if she is compelled by some outside force. “Sorry I’m such a disappointment,” she admits to her mother after she’s caught by the Airbnb guest staying at her family’s home. “We can’t all be appointments,” her mother says in returns, forcing Millie to listen to a tale of her father’s mental health struggles and how he ignored them for too long. Millie appears more upset by the panic attack she insists she didn’t have than by her elaborate schemes after the fact; whether this mental health stigma comes from her life and society in New Zealand or her family and culture, it’s deeply ingrained within her.
Less ingrained and less developed, however, is a plot involving Millie’s professor (Sam Cotton), a man projecting his premature mid-life crisis onto Millie’s romantic advances by having her role play as the wife who’s left him. The sequence comes toward the end of the film after the two have already had a previous awkward encounter, and feels out of place, like it was added to increase the run-time as Millie inched closer to the resolution of her problems. That resolution comes with a wakeup call on her most important relationships, including with her witless but determined boyfriend (Chris Alosio) and the family she’s tried to distance herself from. Director Michelle Savill wraps up the arrested development, coming-of-age cringe comedy in a moment of joy that spells big things for the first-time feature filmmaker.