Some films are just really “naggy” – you see them, and you think you pretty much get what they’re about right off, but then the more you think about them afterwards the more they nag at you, revealing facets you hadn’t even considered at first, like a perfectly formed little gemstone. Kirt Gunn’s directorial debut Lovely by Surprise is very much exactly that kind of movie: you think it’s one thing at first, you realise it’s something very different by the end, and even after that it turns out to be something else yet again.
To take the three-pronged plot, as simply as I can: there is a woman named Marian (Carrie Preston), who is writing a novel about two man-child brothers living on a boat, and she attempts to fight her writer’s block by asking help of an old professor (Austin Pendleton) with whom she seemingly had an affair with back in school. At the same time, the brothers, Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts) get their own plotline, largely acting out the aimless activities that Marian has so far managed to write for them. Elsewhere, and without any immediate apparent connection, a car salesman named Bob (Reg Rogers) is anti-coping with the death of his wife by sliding into a kind of Zen coma, in which his ability to interact with people consists primarily of convincing them that buying a new car is not going to solve the problems in their lives; he’s so detached from everything that he doesn’t even seem to care that his six-year-old daughter Mimi (Lena Lamer) isn’t speaking anymore.
Everything ties together in the end, and it’s likely that you’ll be able to figure out how before it happens; it might even be the point that you do. The twist at the end is a gnarly twist indeed, but it reflects back on the preceding action in more than just an incidental Usual Suspects sort of way; everything that happens is given a considerably different emphasis because of the twist. Which I’m not going to give away, because the movie deserves more than a dick move like that.
Setting that aside, here’s what you’ve got, for at least half of the film: something that looks and sounds an awful lot like so many quirky post-Wes Anderson indie comedies about idiosyncratically broken people, but could not possibly be farther from them. I think that this feeling is intensified by the film’s constant, very precise and neatly balanced compositions, courtesy of cinematographer Steve Yedlin, the man responsible for the very distinctive look of Rian Johnson’s films (such as Brick). At the same time, there’s a remarkable austerity to the compositions in Lovely by Surprise, a certain employment of negative space that makes them less the quirkily overstuffed tableaux of this your average indie film, and more like chilly snapshots of half-formed lives.
It is, in other words, not a film in which messy people find themselves through charmingly absurd situations, but one in which people hit absurdity like a brick wall (it’s the difference between a movie that uses poppy indie music that’s sweet and hip, or modestly obscure ’70s or ’80s art rock, and a movie – this movie – that uses the acerbic sarcasm of The Magnetic Fields, a hipster band for certain, but one that could hardly be called “sweet” in even the most generous use of that adjective). After experimenting with a few different ways of describing what Lovely by Surprise does, I think the best I can come up with is that it takes the standard quirky indie mold and deliberately, possibly even meanly, decides to be about real human beings rather than cartoons, and thus what starts out as a fanciful exercise in whimsy and style turns into a genuinely moving, slightly terrifying, but absolutely gentle and delicate look at how easily the human soul is bent and broken by loss and grief. It is a lovely, silly film that pulls none of its punches and tells no comforting lies. A paradox? A most ingenious paradox.
The film premiered some two years ago but has only today been given a DVD release; it deserves it. I have deliberately refrained from saying much of anything about the movie, on the grounds that most of what there is to be said requires the ending, and the ending is something I will absolutely not give away. Let me say just that it is touching, often peculiar in a way that should be off-putting but isn’t, the acting is generally without even the least fault (note to small-budget and micro-budget filmmakers: there is no substitute for professional actors), and its visual language, though spare, is very clearly the result of careful choice rather than slap-dash “set up the camera in front of the actors and roll film”. None of these things are to be taken for granted, in indie films or elsewhere, and though I can’t do much but say that Lovely by Surprise is quite good, and in very unexpected ways, I hope that’s enough to pique somebody’s interest, somewhere.