The summer-movie season is almost here. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, but I’m still fascinated every time big-budget blockbusters start rolling out right about the time my Azaleas are blooming. Before we begin to bellyflop into brain-erasing films ushered in this year like the eighth—yes, eighth—“Fast & Furious,” I decided to perform one more swan dive into the world of independent cinema with a little OnDemand flick called “Carrie Pilby.”
Does knowing too much about a movie before seeing it ultimately impact the experience? I wrote a column on this subject recently, deep-diving into the idea that we’re so immersed in movies our anticipation is beaten to a bloody pulp by a melange of trailers, commercials, casting announcements, and rumors. Unlike most movies I see, I knew almost nothing about “Carrie Pilby.” I chose it solely based on the comely familiar faces on the poster, and a wreath informing me of its inclusion in last year’s Toronto Film Festival.
Carrie (Bel Powley) is an extremely intelligent young Harvard graduate, who managed to achieve this feat at the ripe young age of 18. She’s spent the last year trying to “find herself,” which comprises isolating herself in a tiny New York apartment and trying to muster the will to make it to regular therapy sessions. Her shrink (Nathan Lane) is a kind, understanding soul, trying to help Carrie through some crippling social awkwardness. He gives her some fairly obvious advice: Get out of the apartment, go out, and try to make some basic human connections. This isn’t easy as Carrie excels in her intellect but lacks skills to master basic interactions.
Her psychological to-do list goes from rudimentary (get a pet) to more complicated items (go on a date). Carrie has a predisposition to conflict, so she sets up a date using the personal ads and finds a guy looking to potentially cheat on his fiancée. Her plan is to publicly humiliate the louse, but he turns out to be a sweet, handsome, anxiety-ridden wayward soul, who is questioning whether or not he’s making the right choice. By the end of their date, she’s smitten, so further complications commence.
In addition to her laundry list of human activities, Carrie is dealing with repairing a relationship with her estranged father (Gabriel Byrne), the emotional baggage of being left by her first real love and a new job forcing her to interact with some interesting coworkers. After a few weeks of getting out and checking off her list, Carrie begins to have something resembling a normal person’s life. In spite of various complications, she manages to make some progress. Much of Carrie’s turmoil comes from the burden of her intelligence. Intellectually, she’s light-years ahead of an average mouth-breathing lunchbox. Emotionally, she’s very much a teenager trying to deal with feelings she cannot reconcile.
I like “Carrie Pilby,” mostly because I liked Carrie Pilby. While her story arc isn’t the most original, there’s an earnestness and vulnerability that makes her engaging. That’s not to say the movie is without flaws. I’ve seen so many variations on this theme: lost souls trying to find themselves in the big city. And the material feels kind of slight, like watching a really long TV pilot. To be fair, if this was a TV series, I’d actually continue watching. It’s like “Felicity” with a British accent and a healthy dose of social awkwardness.
Director Susan Johnson and screenwriter Kara Holden do a good job of creating some interesting characters in familiar story settings. As much credit goes to a very good cast of personalities, including the aforementioned Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne, as well as Jason Ritter and “SNL”’s Vanessa Bayer. The film really does highlight disparity between small independent films finding homes through on-demand services and the larger big-budget monstrosities in theaters.
Everything about “Carrie Pilby” feels diminutive—a small story perfectly suited for the small screen. The entertaining title character and supporting cast manage to be compelling enough to warrant a recommendation in spite of its modest shortcomings.