For a long time, it’s not remotely clear what the title of Lucky Them refers to, or how it might resonate with anything that’s happening onscreen. The movie is well into its second half when those words are finally spoken aloud by protagonist Ellie Klug (Toni Collette), who’s looking at a galago, or bushbaby—a small African primate with the enormous ears of a bat. Having asked whether it gets lonely by itself in its cage, she’s informed that galagos “don’t want love; they just want to be left alone.” Ellie’s response gives Lucky Them its title, but the rueful metaphor is deftly thrown away rather than clumsily emphasized; only with the benefit of hindsight can one detect that the movie has been stealthily building toward it all along. That’s typical of this shaggy, loose-limbed charmer, which initially appears to have a firm and formulaic destination in mind but ultimately proves to be more interested in the details of the journey.
It’s a good thing, too, because the premise seems a tad musty. Today, any journalist given an ultimatum by an editor is likely to be told that she needs to start producing more premium click-bait items, or maybe a more aggressive social-media profile. Here, Giles (Oliver Platt), the editor of a music magazine called Stax (which is just now embarking on its first digital issue—uh-huh), browbeats Ellie, one of his longtime critics, into spending weeks writing an in-depth cover story on a musician named Matthew Smith, who disappeared a decade earlier at the height of his fame. Since Smith had been Ellie’s boyfriend at the time he vanished, she’s not especially eager to retill that soil, but she nonetheless sets out to do some legwork, accompanied by Charlie (Thomas Haden Church), an independently wealthy former fling who now fancies himself a documentary filmmaker and wants to turn this search into his first feature.
Spiky and sardonic, Ellie spends most of her time fighting back the awareness that she’s spent many years stuck in a rut; Collette makes her a quietly dynamic presence, pulling off some tricky scenes with the younger up-and-coming musician (Ryan Eggold) who keeps pursuing her romantically even after she kills the profile she’d promised to write about him. Church is equally superb, in a very different but complementary register—his Charlie, who keeps tagging along uninvited (and is tolerated primarily because he has money), is a singular creation, fully aware of his eccentricity yet blithely unconcerned about how he’s perceived. Much of Lucky Them consists of the two of them driving around in an RV looking for clues about Matthew Smith’s whereabouts, and it’s to the film’s considerable credit that one can’t help but root for them to fail, if only because success might deprive us of their pleasurable company.
There is a resolution to the Matthew Smith mystery, as it happens, and the reveal is deeply affecting despite being somewhat superficially handled. Still, the screenplay—written by Emily Wachtel (with help from Last Exorcism scribe Huck Botko), and reportedly semi-autobiographical—isn’t nearly as interested in plot as it is in tiny revelations of character, as well as in the way that dramatic life changes can arise from seemingly incidental circumstances. Director Megan Griffiths, best known for the grim human-trafficking drama Eden, proves surprisingly adept at this lighter material, maintaining a slightly loopy tone that serves to make the occasional dramatic moments all the more piercing. Every once in a while, it’s nice to have a good movie sneak up on you unawares. Lucky Them is as sneaky as they come.