“Honest” is a word likely to be thrown around a lot regarding writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s debut, Funny Ha Ha. “Realistic” is another. As in, people in real life aren’t always articulate, and they’re not always interesting or put together, and they don’t always have a whole lot to do. Just like Bujalski’s characters. Man, it’s so honest.
Yeah, but you know what? Sometimes—in fact, a whole lot of the time, if you’re lucky enough—people in real life are also well-spoken and charismatic and fun to be around. And therein lies the problem with Funny Ha Ha, a meandering drama about a meandering college grad and her dull friends. Sure, life right after college can be a drag. And certainly, adolescence can now extend well into one’s 20s, causing physical grown-ups to still make giant deals out of crushes and bust creamer containers in restaurants and yell out “Dorks!” to a couple of completely normal guys playing Frisbee.
But does anyone really want to watch a movie about it? Funny Ha Ha spends 89 minutes with 24-year-old Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a pretty but unadorned Boston hipster who just got fired from an unspecified job for asking for a raise. She tells a friend, Alex (Christian Rudder), that she’s now just “walking the earth,” and sorta looking for a new job, too. And later that same night, after running into friends Rachel (Jennifer L. Schaper) and Dave (Myles Paige) and joining them for dinner with still more friends—of course, this being a slacker crowd, not only is the second group running late, no one’s actually decided where to eat—Marnie reveals that, omigod, she’s had the biggest crush on Alex for so long, and he didn’t tell her he just broke up with his girlfriend. But, uh, it’s, like, no big deal, guys. Seriously though! I’m, like, just, whatever. Really.
This is just a paraphrase of Marnie’s stammered backpedaling, after Rachel, Dave, and Alex’s just-dropped-in sister, Susan (Lissa Patton Rudder), all, like, freak out at the news. But if it drives you crazy, be warned: They all talk like that. All the time. And the plot involves three basic things: Marnie’s crush, Marnie’s temp job, and Marnie’s new admirer, Mitchell (Bujalski), a nerdly type she meets at the temp job. Conversations are air-filled, consisting mainly of verbal-tic “sorry”s, “I dunno”s, and various nonreasons why pairing with either T-shirted dude won’t be in Marnie’s future. At night, they drink and crash at each other’s sparely decorated apartments. No one proves to have much of a personality or sense of humor, though nervous laughter accompanies their every sentence.
Bujalski shot Funny Ha Ha in 16 mm. And to be fair, the grainy look combines with Bujalski’s reportedly loose script and the actors’ improvisation to give the movie an impressive documentary feel: Each performer hems and haws with Gen-X vérité, and the lights and sound are often home-movie imperfect. (Whether the latter was intended is another matter.) And there are several moments of gut-wrenching awkwardness, including Alex’s pre-emptive phone call to Marnie in which he around-the-bush refers to some “crazy things” his sister’s been saying and tells her it’s not going to happen (which he at least later criticizes as “an asshole move”) and Mitchell’s mini tantrum when the day he spends kicking back with the woman “probably 90 percent of her guy friends are in love with” doesn’t improve her perpetual semi-dour mood. He asks her, “What more do you want out of life?”
It’s at least a hint that Marnie knows there’s more to living than just her listless existence—a tiny bit of growth reaffirmed in the movie’s last moment. But the ending’s so abrupt, and the sound quality so bad, that audience members may very well miss the final exchange, making the whole irritating enterprise seem pointless. And that might be a lot like life, too, but it’s not what anyone should call entertainment.
If any of the female characters in Funny Ha Ha were in the position of Claire, the young French woman at the center of Eléonore Faucher’s Sequins, they’d, like, totally die. Claire (Lola Naymark), in contrast, is quite unlike most of the teenagers you’d meet in real life. Seventeen, pregnant, and living on her own, she’s surprisingly savvy and self-possessed. She’s made meticulous plans to give birth and place her baby for adoption discreetly, taking sick leave from her dreadful supermarket job when she starts showing and yanking out some of her curly red hair to prove her story—that she has cancer—to co-workers. Quaintly, Claire writes real pen-on-paper letters to her only friend, Lucile (Marie Félix), and her treasured hobby is embroidery, on rabbit furs she acquires after trading the cabbages she surreptitiously harvests off her family’s land.
So, no, this 17-year-old character may not realistically reflect her modern demographic, but she’s never unbelievable. Nor will she work your last nerve. Depending on your taste for gossamer storytelling, however, Faucher’s feature debut as a whole just might. Sequins is quiet and decorous, desperate to be as exquisite as Claire’s fiery, cascading mane. The plot involves not just Claire’s pregnancy and isolation—she keeps only phone contact with her parents so they won’t find out, and doesn’t want a relationship with the baby’s father—but the low-key friendship she strikes up with Mme. Mélikian (Ariane Ascaride), a middle-aged embroiderer who recently lost her only son because of an accident caused by Lucile’s older brother, Guillaume (Thomas Laroppe). Lucile’s family encourages Claire to ask Mme. Mélikian for employment, noting that she probably needs help with her workload now that her son is gone.
So Claire wraps her hair in a scarf and respectfully approaches Mme. Mélikian, who agrees to try her out. Claire shows up at the embroiderer’s drab home the next morning and goes to work, wordlessly—the dialogue in the first part of Sequins, penned by Faucher and Gaëlle Macé, is spare, and it doesn’t get any more gabby after Claire’s on the job. Instead, we see either Mme. Mélikian or Claire sewing/staring/generally looking pensive, often as Michael Galasso’s increasingly maddening, Philip Glass– esque string score plays. Shots of both embroiderers’ intricate work are frequent.
For all Sequins’ simplicity in execution, there is complexity in both actresses’ delicate performances. Naymark expresses Claire’s soon-conflicting emotions about the baby almost entirely in her plain face, with her gorgeous hair also serving as an emotional barometer: Sometimes free, sometimes pulled back, and sometimes hidden by a scarf, Claire’s mane seems to correspond with her apparent battle between her head and, literally, her gut. And Ascaride allows Mme. Mélikian’s sorrow to come through a demeanor that initially seems merely stern. The character’s softening after she notices Claire’s belly is palpable; even after the woman attempts suicide, Ascaride infuses her desolation with dignity.
Claire’s the one who finds Mme. Mélikian unconscious one day, and from this point on the two subtly trade off roles in an increasingly mother-daughter relationship. Toward the end of the film, Faucher allows each of the women a moment when she smiles for the first time, either at the other or at herself in the mirror, and after all the silent suffering the effect is unexpectedly joyous. Like the work the characters do, Sequins requires some patience, but the end result is more lovely than its parts might lead you to believe.CP