The Sunlit Night, 2020.
Directed by David Wnendt.
Starring Jenny Slate, Alex Sharp, Zach Galifianakis, Gillian Anderson, Fridtjov Såheim, David Paymer, and Jessica Hecht.
Set between New York City and the far north of Norway, The Sunlit Night follows American painter Frances and émigré Yasha as an unlikely pair who find each other in the Arctic circle. Frances has arrived to jumpstart her career while Yasha has come to bury his father in the land of the Vikings. Together under a sun that never quite sets, they bury the past and discover the future, and family, they didn’t know they had.
Premiering in 2019, The Sunlit Night is the quirkiest movie to come out of Sundance in years, which is saying something considering quirky tends to be the modus operandi for many offerings. Beginning with a trio of stuffy art critics ridiculing her efforts, Frances (Jenny Slate, who might be the only one here that resembles a real person with feelings) is going through a rough patch in life, with roadblocks in her career not even being the half of it. Raised by artistic parents, her father (who is outspoken, condescending, and insulting to exaggerated degrees as if we are watching a sitcom) is ready to get separated, just as his other daughter announces her engagement to a man that everyone but Frances inexplicably loathes.
This causes Frances to bury herself and more work, becoming the apprentice of a Norwegian artist that’s on the same misunderstood low rung of the totem pole as her. It’s not exactly an exciting job, painting a barn all yellow, but it does provide free lodging inside of a nearby trailer with plenty of gorgeous vistas not limited to the beautiful scenery (there is an adorable goat that generates more likability than pretty much the entire cast combined). Of course, there’s also the environmental dynamic that she is constantly basking in daylight.
There is enough of a juxtaposition between the personalities of Frances and Nils (Fridtjov Såheim, stern and all about hard work without so much as a thought about letting his underling explore or have fun) to tell a story about finding a balance between passion and work, and also something thoughtful about identity. Instead (and it should also be noted that The Sunlit Night is adapted for the screen by the book’s novelist Rebecca Dinerstein Knight and directed by David Wnendt), the narrative introduces such idiosyncratic characters like a pretend Viking that’s actually from Cincinnati played by Zach Galifianakis.
From there, Yasha (Alex Sharp) stumbles into the location to process and find closure regarding the loss of his father. An unbelievable and misguided romantic affection begins to form between him and Frances (Yasha is an artist of his own, born into working in his father’s bakery) that is both strange and empty. It is still nowhere near as bizarre as Frances deciding to paint a naked portrait of a grocery store worker (Jessica Hecht). By the time all of the family drama is being resolved, everything here feels normal in comparison.
Again, everything here is smothered in so much quirkiness that not a single plot point emerges as worth investing in. The longer it goes on, it all just becomes laughable, and the movie doesn’t even reach 80 minutes without ending credits. It’s all the more frustrating considering the photography is genuinely stunning with some nonetheless entertaining artistically historical looks at the culture. The Sunlit Night progresses without a break to process any of its absurd plot beats, at times feeling like an unintentional parody of similar Sundance quirky dramedies. Sadly, the movie is serious, and it’s an unmitigated disaster.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com