Jenny Slate’s abilities as a lead actress were confirmed in 2014’s Obvious Child, and that holds true with The Sunlit Night. Based on Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel (and also adapted into the screenplay by the author), The Sunlit Night is a coming of age dramedy that, at 82 minutes, is short, sweet, and to the point. I loved its brevity and balance between the lighter and darker moments, and fans of Slate should gravitate to the film.
Frances (Jenny Slate) is an aspiring painter who lives in a cramped apartment in New York City with her family. The tale begins with a critical evisceration of her work, and that disappointment festers thanks to her claustrophobic living conditions (David Paymer and Jessica Hecht play her loving but equally self centered parents).
With her sister (Elise Kibler) getting engaged and the recent announcement of her parents’ diveroce, Frances needs a change of scenery and decides to take a summer job in Norway. Frances helps paint a barn for an anti-social artist named Nils (Fridtjov Såheim), and this installation project, which adheres to his own specifications, will be an all consuming experience for our protagonist.
Frances eventually finds her footing, and although she spends most of her day working with Nils, she carves out time to paint and create her own work. Zach Galifianakis is Haldor, a Cincinnati resident who’s playing a Viking chief to help organize a Viking funeral for Yasha (Alex Sharp), a New Yorker who is carrying out his late father’s wishes (Gillian Anderson has a relative cameo as Yasha’s mother).
Frances ultimately develops a frienship with Yasha (they’re both New Yorkers), and although she often butts heads with Nils, existing in the wide open space of Norway is actually doing her some good. Director David Wnendt and cinematographer Martin Ahlgren capture breathtaking locations of Norway, and at the very least The Sunlit Night can exist as a visual spectacle even to its detractors.
The feature has been edited since its Sundance premiere (where it received mixed reviews), and although one assumes Knight’s novel has much more meat to the story, The Sunlit Night’s streamlined approach absolutely works. Some viewers may desire more of an explanation and in-depth coverage of Frances’ various relationships (for example with her ex-boyfriend, a local she collaborates with on a portratit, and Yasha), but ultimately The Sunlit Night works by simply getting to the point.
My interview with author Rebecca Dinerstein Knight is up on the following episode of Flick City:
Although she loves her family and is passionate about art, Frances is in need of something desperately to say or express. Her journey to Norway is, whether she knows it or not, actually a way to embrace the world and not run away from her responsibilities.
Having never been to Norway (Knight’s novel is inspired by her own time living and writing in the country), I have no idea what it’s like to see the sun from most of the day. Although an initial impediment to Frances’ sleep, this “sunlit night” leads to a creative reawakening, and experiencing Slate undergo this transformation is a joy to watch.
With comedic talent such as Galifianakis, Slate, and even Anderson, Wnendt could have gone overboard with the jokes and humor, but he keeps the tone at a refreshingly even keel. When I get the chance I’ll even purchase Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel to get a more in-depth view of the story, but for now the movie is more than capable of lighting the way.
The Sunlit Night is now available on VOD.