By: Will Ashton (Three Beers) –
Mr. Roosevelt doesn’t want to be called “quirky.” And it shouldn’t be. Noël Wells’s charming, winning, nimble feature directorial debut goes out of its way to scorn that dismissive label. And for good reason. While the quarter-life crisis indie dramedy formula is well-worn by this point, Mr. Roosevelt is anything but weathered. A passionate, creative, compassionate, consistently funny, and supremely touching effort filled with wit, heart, sensitivity, and cinematic confidence, Wells’s sincere, exceptionally lovely freshman film quickly promises a blooming, skillful multi-hyphenate who’s well worth following. To call it “quirky” wouldn’t nearly do it justice. Mr. Roosevelt is a talent showcase that radiates with hilarity and gumption.
The story follows Emily Martin (Wells), a gifted comedic actor/editor in her early 30s still struggling to find her way in L.A. Though she found enormous success and a following on YouTube, Emily hasn’t figured how to monetize that or how to propel that success past her popular online account. Her days are spent in unsuccessful commercial auditions and showing up late for her editing job with her indignant boss (Doug Benson), while her nights find her unable to connect with the local improv scene. But when she gets a distressing emergency call in the middle of the night from her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune), Emily flys back to Austin, TX to discover Celeste (Man Seeking Woman‘s Britt Lower) has taken her place in his life.
Celeste is basically the perfect girlfriend, filled with kind support and helpful insights, and Emily can’t stand it. “She’s like a Pinterest board come to life,” she remarks at one point, and indeed, Celeste is just a little too neat and perfect. Emily gets resentful, and she doesn’t trust her with her former boyfriend. But when emotions become heated, Emily finds support from Jen (Daniella Pineda), a local waitress unafraid to speak her mind, and throughout her days back home, Emily slowly regains some composure in her life.
On paper, Mr. Roosevelt doesn’t appear to be anything you haven’t seen before. But the film’s rousing success doesn’t come from its original story, but rather from the inspiration and perspective Wells brings. As an actor, Wells is a bubbly, winsome delight, filled to the brim with hearty energy and enthusiasm. She’s never afraid to display her array of quips and impersonations, but it never becomes cloying or tired. As a screenwriter, Wells carries her idiosyncratic voice, filled with zipping smarts, but the dialogue never feels stilted or, worst, dishonest. She’s a clever writer with a lot of funny, insightful things to say, with a loving attention to character and story that never feels crass or critical, and I’ll definitely be looking forward to hearing her voice again in future projects. And as a director, Wells has a bright vision that’s at once controlled and chaotic, in just the right ways. Shot on 16mm Kodak film, Mr. Roosevelt reflects the restless intensity of its unfocused protagonist, while never letting itself become cluttered or overly fussy. It’s a beautifully fizzled movie, one that explodes with the actor/filmmaker’s delicately prominent touch.
These are all telling signs of a well-formed filmmaker ready to shine. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
It’s not hard to spot Wells’s cinematic influences in Mr. Roosevelt. For instance, it’s easy to see how Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Zach Braff, and Joe Swanberg, to name a few, might have inspired Wells’s film. While that doesn’t necessarily detract from everything Wells does so efficiently well on her own, it does remind you how similar the story is to other films of similar ilk. Not the worst flaw in the world, though. Wells does channel her own voice and her own personality into the film. It’s not merely an impersonation. And I don’t want to suggest otherwise. But there’s still that nagging sense that you’ve seen this one before. Especially towards the third act, when Mr. Roosevelt hits some familiar and predictable storytelling beats.
There are also some first movie flaws that are completely understandable but are otherwise worth noting. The camera is out of focus in some shots. The ending is a tad too clean for the film’s general messiness. There are perhaps one too many musical montages for Mr. Roosevelt‘s own good. None of these things kill the movie, it’s important to stress, but they do impact its overall success. But because Mr. Roosevelt is defined by a character slowly-yet-quickly coming to form, in a way, it also makes the film a little better too. If that makes sense. The film’s flaws are, indeed, the film’s flaws, but they are also its strengths. It’s a bit confusing, I bet, but when you have a film that’s centered around a character like this, it makes sense. The logic is odd, but it doesn’t have to be completely sound. And that’s one beauty of this film.
Mr. Roosevelt is flawed and intentionally/unintentionally messy, but it’s nevertheless a sweet, enchanting, shining triumph. Bolstered by the singing success of its lead actress/writer/director, it’s a rich, admirable, warmly-made, emotionally charged, and nicely homey film made with love, care, and fine attention to place and person. You’ll see better films this year. You’ll see worse films too. But you’ll keep a special place in your heart for this one. Remember: Please don’t call it “quirky.” That’s selling it much too short.
Mr. Roosevelt (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: during every music montage.
Take a Drink: every time Celeste annoys Emily.
Take a Drink: for every familiar indie movie beat.
Take a Drink: anytime a character says “Mr. Roosevelt.”
Take a Drink: every time Emily does an impression or voice.
Do a Shot: in remembrance of the late dear Mr. Roosevelt.