“The Sunlit Night,” a new Jenny Slate comedy now on VOD, feels like a throwback to the oddball indie films of recent decades. No detail is too twee, no setting too obscure. The viewer is reminded of a flood of titles like “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Amelie” come to mind, movies where the quirk factor is set to the max.
Jenny Slate plays Frances, a young woman following in the footsteps of her parents. All three are frustrated artists. “Maybe I’m not an artist,” she says. “Maybe I’m just the daughter of two other artists.” After one spectacularly bad day that sees her break up with her rich boyfriend, get critically savaged by her art professors, find out her lawyer sister is engaged and her parents (David Paymer and Jessica Hecht) are splitting up. As if that wasn’t enough, she gets denied an apprenticeship in Tokyo. Rather than live with her father in his tiny studio she accepts another, less than desirable offer—“He fired his last assistant and now he needs someone to paint a barn, using only the colour yellow.”—with reclusive artist Nils (Fridtjov Såheim) in the far, far north of Norway. “This is where you go when you are exiled,” she says.
Her new life in Lofoten takes some getting used to. She is a fish out of water, the sun never sets, small goats invade her trailer, and the job is a slog, essentially a large paint by numbers project that leaves her little or no time to work on her own paintings. Still, she finds time to explore the nearby Viking Museum run by ex-pat American (Zach Galifianakis) and, despite telling her mother that she is “closed for business, a potential love interest in Yasha (Alex Sharp), a Brooklyn baker who has travelled to the top of the world to give his late father, and not just the ashes, but the whole corpse, a traditional Viking funeral.
“The Sunlit Night” has something offer after a radical rethink following brutal reviews at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It’s still a bit sloppy and a little too whimsically weird for its own sake, but Slate and a fun cameo from Gillian Anderson as Yasha’s mother do much of the heavy lifting. Most of the other characters seem to exist simply to add flavour to Frances’ rather colourless journey to find herself.
No amount of re-editing could get “The Sunlit Night” past the basic premise of outsiders navigating the strange Arctic Circle surroundings, but Slate brings charm to a story that otherwise may have been devoid of any realistic or interesting human behaviour.