No matter how much we’d like them to be, characters in films don’t always have to be likable. They don’t always have to make good decisions or smart choices. They don’t have to necessarily behave in an entirely believable or relatable manner. They don’t even have to change, no matter what traditional storytelling tells us. But if they are unlikable and unbelievable and stupid and stuck, even the best-intentioned films will fail. And without even good intentions? They’ll simply insult.
Director Lynn Shelton (‘Humpday,’ ‘Your Sister’s Sister’) has long made her mark in the indie film world by crafting features about the most uncomfortable kinds of honesty (from a desire to make a gay porn with your straight pal to a best friendship laid bare by hidden feelings, and everything in between). Shelton’s brand of film is intimate and personal and funny and rooted in reality, and she excels at chronicling the ins and outs of friendship in a touching and truthful way. On the surface, her latest feature, the Andrea Seigel-penned ‘Laggies,’ sounds like it should fit right in her wheelhouse. And yet the ostensible coming-of-age tale is easily the most phony, contrived, emotionless, and unbelievable project she’s ever had the misfortune of helming. If this is the next step for a talented director like Shelton, we beg her to regress, because ‘Laggies’ is a jarringly shallow entry into her once-inspiring resume.
In fact, regression is the topic at hand, as ‘Laggies’ centers on a twentysomething who never quite grew up, and will soon learn that she doesn’t actually have to (how’s that for character evolution?). Despite going to school for a degree in counseling (a bitterly bizarre plot point, considering how terrible she is at both giving and receiving advice), Meg (Keira Knightley) hasn’t yet ascended to a professional career (she hasn’t really ascended to much, actually). Meg spends her time spinning a roadside sign for her beloved dad’s accounting firm, hitting her parents’ house to watch some daytime TV, and trying to dodge life advice from her sweet longtime boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber).
That “longtime” part might be part of the problem, as all of Meg’s friends are longtime – the film actually kicks off with a sequence that documents Meg’s high school prom alongside Anthony and her three best girlfriends, before intercutting fresh pictures of all the girls, ten years on and still best pals, and then landing us square in their ten year high school reunion. While Anthony is firmly tied to their pals (which, yes, now include dudes for the girls), Meg is noticeably distancing herself. Meg’s disaffection with her “group” is understandable enough; while they have all moved forward with their lives in an acceptable and expected manner, Meg hasn’t quite figured out what she wants to do or even who she wants to be. But they are all immature in their own way – because no matter how traditionally successful someone might look, there’s something inherently backwards about staying friends with the same people since high school, and the insular nature of their group doesn’t seem exactly conducive to personal growth.
But if Meg doesn’t fit in with them anymore, who does she? In the world of ‘Laggies,’ she belongs with a group of strange teenagers she meets in a grocery store parking lot.
Despite its promising (or at least believable) opening, ‘Laggies’ soon slips into both the traditional and the contrived. The already on-edge Meg is fast thrown into a state of upheaval, thanks to a double whammy of a wake-up call that smacks of genre cliché, but at least helps contextualize and normalize Meg’s reaction, which is to run away as fast as she can. While Meg seems to resent her friends because they are the only ones she and Anthony have and they haven’t changed much in the decade-plus that they’ve all been a tightknit group, she immediately takes to the attention of the pack of teenagers begging her to buy them booze. Meg hates her friends because they’re trapped in the past, but she’s unnervingly eager to revisit it with literal teenagers, including the magnetic Chloe Grace Moretz as Annika.
It’s that sort of annoying dichotomy that drives Meg – she hates her friends, but she takes their behavior to an entirely new level – and it’s what makes ‘Laggies’ so loathsome. Knightley is always a charming on-screen presence, but even her charisma can’t undo the fact that Meg is fundamentally dishonest, wholly troublesome, and almost creepily regressive. After lying to Anthony about her whereabouts (she tells him she’s attending a life seminar, the sort of “isn’t this funny and clever and ironic” gag that punctuates the entire feature), Meg is free to do whatever she wants for an entire week – which soon involves pretending to be Annika’s absentee mother at a school meeting, sleeping over at Annika’s house (alongside pal Mindy, played by ‘Short Term 12’ breakout Kaitlyn Dever, who deserves so much better than this role and this film), hitting high school parties, and actually shopping for a prom dress.
Oh, and also getting to know Annika’s dad Craig, played by Sam Rockwell, in a very personal manner. While Seigel’s script soon takes the film in the most obvious and most mainstream direction, Rockwell’s turn here is a welcome one, as the actor has an infectious energy that perks up every scene he appears in. He’s almost charming enough to waylay obvious concerns that a single dad would let a strange twentysomething stranger hang out with his teen daughter.
‘Laggies’ presents itself as a coming-of-age tale, centered on Meg finding herself and discovering what she really wants – but who she really is just so happens to be someone terrible and what she really wants is hurtful and ugly. The tone of ‘Laggies’ stays generally light, so it seems readily apparent that Shelton and Seigel intend for their audience to feel good about what is happening on screen, but despite a very talented cast and a handful of very funny lines, ‘Laggies’ is more regressive than its anti-heroine and more immature than attempting to return to high school a decade later. Shelton has never made something this phony, and here’s hoping she never does again.‘Laggies’ premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.