I Used to Be Funny, 2023.
Written and Directed by Ally Pankiw.
Starring Rachel Sennott, Olga Petsa, Jason Jones, Sabrina Jalees, Caleb Hearon, Ennis Esmer, Dani Kind, Dan Beirne, Stephen Alexander, Miguel Rivas, Marvin Kaye, and Daniel Woodrow.
Sam, a stand-up comedian struggling with PTSD, weighs whether or not to join the search for a missing teenage girl she used to nanny.
From first-time feature-length writer-director Ally Pankiw, I Used to Be Funny is less about the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl and more about how traumatic experiences suck the life and joy out of an individual. Starring real-life standup comedian/actress Rachel Sennott (a rising talent I can’t sing the praises of enough, here excelling at a heavier and more dramatic role) as a former standup comedian and nanny Sam to that young girl Brooke (Olga Petsa, delivering an arresting breakthrough performance, especially given the challenging material she is handed), it’s made clear that something about that dynamic turned sour over the course of 2-3 years, and that the girl is rebelling and lashing out for unclear reasons that involve her part-time guardian.
Whatever happened has traumatized Sam to the point of isolation and hibernation, unable to write jokes, let alone get up on stage and tell them alongside the supportive friends she also rooms with (charismatic and amusingly played by Sabrina Jalees and Caleb Hearon). Social media backlash has also twisted the words and purpose of Sam’s progressive, men-bashing jokes (the kind of humor that generally doesn’t bother men with enough self-awareness that the joke is not coming at their expense) to be hypocritical and deceptive. It’s also worth pointing out that the event’s severity involved a court case where the same comedy routine is used as evidence and pointed out by judges in an infuriatingly regressive fashion. It’s a segment that is primarily terrifying for the lengths men will go to turn words against a woman for selfish purposes.
Then there is Brooke, who is not only in great anguish and emotional pain from something related to Sam’s trauma but has already been pushing her way through a rough patch after losing her mom to a terminal illness. Her father, Cameron (Jason Jones), is a police officer working extended hours into the night and doesn’t know how to talk and connect to a teenage girl. Considering Brooke’s aunt Jill (Dani Kind) lives too far away to care for Brooke daily, Cameron goes with the funny babysitter he inappropriately admits he finds attractive.
I Used to Be Funny is almost equally comprised of flashbacks and present-day scenes, with the former taking its time developing a beautifully sweet bond between Sam and Brooke that came when the young girl most desperately needed someone to understand her. It also occasionally presents those flashbacks out of order, much like I would assume some trauma is processed so that viewers can piece together what tragic incident occurred.
The careful and methodical pacing also allows the 180 from friendship to hatred a more grounded authenticity; without saying what happened, it’s easy to buy into every decision both characters make. It can be a bit obvious but considering where we are in the world socially, it’s not a bad thing to be predictably timely. However, the indie soundtrack does feel somewhat out of place, occasionally letting songs run on for too long. Ally Pankiw also has such a strong grasp on the messages and themes, touching on them organically, that the shortcomings are less of a bother. Although, since Olga Petsa is tremendous as Brooke, there’s a case to be made that the story would be more emotionally powerful if there were even one or two more scenes from her perspective.
The script is also concerned with what this situation would do to Sam psychologically, who is beginning to resent her friends for being kind and patient with her PTSD, which drives her to pursue the missing Brooke even though she is now despised and seen as a traitor. There’s also an exploration of how that perceived betrayal, coupled with trauma, zaps one’s enthusiasm for their hobbies and career.
Rachel Sennott will likely always be funny; even here, the serious role still grants her time to show off her whipsmart, sassy comedic timing, but here with a painful side. However, the drama at the center of I Used to Be Funny is bruising and beautifully raw, eliciting tears; Rachel Sennott and Olga Petsa are tremendous and devastatingly explosive together.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com