Director: Susan Johnson
Cast: Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne, Vanessa Bayer, Colin O’Donoghue, Jason Ritter, William Moseley
Runtime: 1 hr 38 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Sexual References)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 6 April 2017
Synopsis: Carrie Pilby (Bel Powley) is a 19-year old genius, a year out of Harvard, four years ahead of her peers, living in New York City. Burdened with an overactive moral compass and self-consciously aware of her uncommon intellect, in a city full of people she considers oversexed, deceitful hypocrites, Carrie finds herself isolated, friendless, dateless and unemployed. To coax Carrie out of her shell, her psychiatrist, Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane), makes a list of goals she is to achieve between Thanksgiving and the end of the year: 1. Go on a date. 2. Make a friend. 3. Spend New Year’s Eve with someone. 4. Get a pet. 5. Do something you loved as a child. 6. Read favourite book. At first Carrie resists, but when her goal-oriented prodigy brain kicks in, she embraces the task with a vengeance. Set against the backdrop of decked-out-for-the-holidays New York City, Carrie evolves into the compassionate person she never knew she wanted to be.
The more you like the eponymous 19-year-old teenage prodigy who is the subject of this film, the more you’re likely to dislike the film that she is in.
Based upon the New York Times bestselling YA novel of the same name by Caren Lissner, ‘Carrie Pilby’ is a 19-year-old teenage prodigy with an IQ of 185 who has already graduated from Harvard after enrolling at the mere age of 14. Unfortunately, as such characters come, she has far from the perfect life. Her mother died when she was just 12, her Blighty-based father (Gabriel Bryne) has largely been absent since, and she sees a therapist (Nathan Lane) regularly for guidance. Essentially, her genius makes her feel freakish, her social awkwardness compounds her sense of isolation and she doesn’t quite know how to engage human company for which she longs for.
In adapting the book, screenwriter Kara Holden retains the basic structural premise, i.e. that her psychiatrist Dr Petrov (Lane) has given her a list of five tasks to complete which are intended to take her out of her shell. These include making a friend, spending New Year’s Eve with someone (it’s just Thanksgiving when Carrie is assigned these tasks), getting a pet, doing something she loved as a child and reading her favourite book. Yet rather than focus on these five well-intentioned things to accomplish, the attention here falls mostly – and sadly – on her romantic attractions towards a bunch of brainy lost souls in New York City.
There is the philandering MIT grad (Jason Ritter) Carrie picks out from a newspaper classifieds ad that the former has taken out to solicit female company before he seals his marriage vows - though Carrie reaches out to him with the intention of exposing him, they end up connecting unexpectedly with each other over literary interests and almost getting intimate with on the sofa of the apartment he shares with his fiancé. There is the music geek boy next door (William Moseley), whom Carrie initially chides for disturbing the peace of her neighbourhood when he is playing some quirky musical instrument along the back alley of their apartment building. After a couple of run-ins, she discovers that he happens to be a closet Berkeley grad and a New York Philharmonic musician. And last but not least, told over a series of lugubrious flashbacks is the Harvard professor (Colin O’Donoghue) she dated as a student, to whom she lost her virginity as well as her late mother’s copy of J.D. Salinger’s ‘Franny and Zooey’.
No doubt the scenes in between show her getting a pair of goldfish she names Katharine and Spencer (after her favourite actress Katherine Hepburn), taking up a temp job as a proofreader at a law firm on the graveyard shift, and befriending two eccentric colleagues who will become her friends, but neither of these other pursuits are fleshed out adequately or perhaps with the same amount of enthusiasm as Carrie’s love life. If it isn’t yet obvious, what is surely meant to be a coming-of-age tale of a distinctive individual is ultimately reduced to a string of vignettes surrounding her bumpy love life. Only for a while during the third act does her dad show up for the obligatory father-daughter reconciliation, and even that has to be done over a long overdue resolution with the aforementioned bastard Harvard professor from a couple of years ago.
To the credit of indie film star Bel Powley (reprising her precocious turn in her impressive debut ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’), she makes Carrie a lot more endearing and nuanced than her movie allows her to be. Fully embracing her character’s intelligence and idiosyncrasies, Powley makes a truly engaging screen presence. Lane and Bryne lend excellent support, but are again given too little time and space to develop more fully their characters’ respective relationships with Carrie. In contrast, her other male co-stars are often bland and dull, which further begs the question of why so much emphasis has been given to them in the first place.
As a movie though, accomplished producer Susan Johnson’s directorial debut feels choppy and episodic, lacking coherence and continuity as it lurches from subplot to subplot. Of course, the fact that it is a little rough around the edges gives it an indie vibe, but the dearth of wit in the banter as well as the sappy piano score gives off more of an ABC Family movie feel. Feminists will also take offense at how such a brilliant female who reads Foucault and Kierkegaard and rebuffs men's tendency for sugarcoated catcalling is diminished to finding direction in life through her father and a potential male suitor.
But that aside, there is no shaking off the fact that ‘Carrie Pilby’ comes off flimsy and inauthentic, turning what could have been a witty poignant coming-of-age tale into a trite and cutesy journey through the ups and downs of teenage romance.
(Reducing what could have been a witty, poignant coming-of-age tale of a unique female individual into a series of romantic vignettes, 'Carrie Pilby' does its own intriguing protagonist poetic injustice)
Review by Gabriel Chong