Has success spoiled Lynn Shelton? Are we losing her—year by year, film by film—to the anonymity of Indiewood? Heartening though it is to see the director of Humpday work her way up the industry ladder, earning the bigger audiences and bigger budgets she deserves, the career advancement seems to have come at the expense of her artistic personality. Shelton, who used to make scrappy, wholly improvised indie gabfests, continues to sand down the rough edges of her style, so that each new movie feels a little less distinct—and a lot less transgressive—than the one before it. That pattern of diminishing returns persists with Laggies, her most innocuous creation yet. Like last year’s Touchy Feely, the film finds Shelton operating with the safety net of a full screenplay. And she didn’t even pen this one—credit there goes to first-time screenwriter Andrea Seigel—which may explain why it almost never feels like a movie from the woman who built a winning comedy around a game of sexual chicken between two straight friends.
The plot is a Focus Features executive’s wet dream come true (though the film went to A24 after premiering at Sundance): Stubbornly clinging to her adolescence, 28-year-old Megan (Keira Knightley, rocking a flawless American accent and a girlish lilt) floats aimlessly through post-college life, exhibiting an Apatow-like lack of ambition that her more “mature” friends fret about. When her high-school sweetheart (Mark Webber) proposes to her, Megan freaks out, buying time by leaving for a weeklong self-improvement seminar. Except, she ends up blowing that off for the exact opposite of self-improvement, hiding out instead with a high-school student, Annika (Chloë Grace Moretz), for whom she once purchased beer. She also cozies up to the girl’s father (Sam Rockwell), who proves surprisingly quick to trust this grown woman spending all of her time with his teenage daughter.
Given that basic premise, it’s something of a miracle Laggies isn’t completely insufferable. That it manages to occasionally charm is thanks almost entirely to Shelton’s ease with the actors—especially the teenage ones, including a scene-stealing Kaitlyn Dever as Annika’s eccentric best friend. Little moments earn smiles: the parking-lot meeting between Annika and Megan; the latter’s attempts to explain to her budding-yuppie friend (Ellie Kemper) that twisting the nipples of a giant, plastic Buddha is a joke about nipples, not a joke about Buddha; and the scene in which Rockwell’s character, acting as a surrogate for the audience, demands answers from the stranger sleeping on the floor of his daughter’s bedroom. (Actually, every scene with Rockwell is a highlight. He’s a national treasure.)
Ultimately, though, Laggies is undone by the sitcom contrivance of its scenario and some very on-the-nose dialogue, which keeps reminding viewers that, yes, this is a story about willful regression. (The film’s message about sometimes needing to go back to move forward is one Shelton could stand to process, as it might result in a creative course correction.) And while Knightley is often quite funny in the role, she’s playing a blatant screenwriters’ invention—a character whose behavior most people would find disturbing or infuriating, not adorable, in real life. Shelton brings out the best in her cast; she can make one-liners sing, a skill possibly acquired while moonlighting on New Girl. Still, it’s hard not to wish she was letting the actors make up their lines on the spot, à la her much funnier early films. Whatever they’d come up with would have to be better than this, right?