The Sunlit Night is a collection of scenes and tropes we’ve seen many times before: a broken relationship that fuels life changes, quirky family dinners, and an aimless protagonist finding love in the most unsuspecting of places. That would all be fine if the movie ever gave us a reason to want to spend time with these characters or did anything remotely insightful with its familiarities.
Jenny Slate stars as Frances, a struggling artist, who is given an opportunity to participate in an art residency, which she declines because she is supposed to be going to Japan with her boyfriend. When her boyfriend abruptly dumps her, her younger sister announces she is getting married and her parents (David Paymer and Jessica Hecht) tell their daughters they are splitting up, it’s time for Frances to run. She begs the people running the art residency for her spot back but they are only able to offer her a job in Norway, helping Nils (Fridtjov Saheim) finish painting a barn only using shades of yellow.
“…she declines because…her boyfriend abruptly dumps her, her younger sister announces she is getting married and her parents…are splitting up…”
When she gets to Norway, she quickly learns her host isn’t the most welcoming; he doesn’t like her rapid fire small talk and has no real interesting showing her around. He leads her to her rundown trailer she will be staying in and tells her what times she is expected in the barn. For the most part, Frances puts up with his grumpy demeanor because she is happy to be working on anything art-related, even if painting a barn isn’t exactly ideal.
Meanwhile, there’s another story happening with Yasha (Alex Sharp), who works at a bakery in New York City with his Russian immigrant father. We know his father is having some health issues but the movie sends Yasha to Norway to bury his father where Frances is staying because there is a Viking population (led by Zach Galifianakis), who will lead the funeral proceedings for Yasha’s father. Gillian Anderson shows up as Yasha’s estranged mother for more conflict intended for quirky comedic purpose.
The issue with The Sunlit Night is director David Wnendt and writer Rebecca Dinerstein (adapting her own novel) is they can’t decide whose story they really want to tell. When Frances and Yasha’s storylines converge, it feels the movie is missing a few scenes in between and the movie ends up feeling incomplete and contrived more than anything else.
“Slate is always a wonderful presence, exuding a rare energy and comedic timing that not many actors can offer…”
Slate is always a wonderful presence, exuding a rare energy and comedic timing that not many actors can offer. She has been in better movies of this kind (a lot of the familial issues in The Sunlit Night feel reminiscent of Slate’s Landline). She isn’t the issue; the material just isn’t there.
The movie offers some escapist imagery, shot beautifully by cinematographer Martin Ahlgren, who captures the Norway landscapes like a postcard. It’s easy to disappear into the setting of The Sunlit Night but if only the narrative were as involving.
The Sunlit Night (2019) Directed by David Wnendt. Written by Rebecca Dinerstein. Starring Jenny Slate, Alex Sharp, David Paymer, Jessica Hecht, Gillian Anderson, Zach Galifianakis.
4 out of 10