In the opening moments of “The Party’s Just Beginning,” you have so much fun that you’ll be convinced Liusadh (Karen Gillian) is too, first peering in on her drunkenly singing karaoke, ignoring the on-screen lyrics to perform her own spoken word. Tiring of the disinterested patrons who pay her no mind, she takes to the streets, finding a stranger to shag outside a fish and chips stand, and in one fluid motion from the pub, with Pepijn Caudron’s pulsing score, taking influence from Thelma Houston’s disco hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” overwhelming the senses, it feels as if the beat ever stops, Lucy will as well, since it becomes clear this isn’t the carefree gallivanting of someone who wants more from the world, but someone who’s seen too much. Ironically, Liusaidh isn’t all that worldly, living in the tiny town of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, but she made peace with it long ago, mostly because her best friend Ben (Jamie Quinn) made it tolerable, and with his death, taking his own life after finding no such acceptance with a place that seems hopelessly stuck in time, it no longer makes sense to her.
“The Party’s Just Beginning” marks the feature directorial debut of Gillan, the “Guardians of the Galaxy” star who has created a heck of a part for herself to sink her teeth into as an actress, which may raise slight concern that with a revelatory turn such as this, she’ll become too busy to helm another film of her own anytime soon. While Liusadh’s initial bravado masks a tortured soul, Gillan directs with a verve that’s unrelenting as she makes Inverness both so familiar and foreign to her onscreen alter ego, going through the motions of a life to which she knows of no other alternative, but suddenly starts to question. Through a canny sense of structure and elusive editing, not to mention her own performance, Gillan ably places Liusadh’s mind elsewhere at all times as she’s confronted with the fact that reality won’t stop for her to mourn, reflecting back on lazy Sundays spent with Ben when they could create their own little universe together, occasionally taking Molly to venture into other dimensions, that makes her present seem even more harsh, working at deli counter at a supermarket where they can’t even get her nametag right and drinking to black out in the evenings.
Liusadh finds some small degree of comfort when one the guys she goes home with Dale (Lee Pace), who isn’t from the area, takes an interest in her, though that feeling is fleeting when he too can’t be bothered to ask for her name, and it’s to Gillan’s great credit that while Ben’s death has led to considerable sorrow for Liusadh, she’s able to respectfully recast the loss as an opportunity for Liusadh to create an identity for herself apart from anyone’s influence, setting the stage for a satisfying resolution while being honest about a period of mourning in which no person or specific redemptive act can pull her out of her pain. While “The Party’s Just Beginning” catches Liusadh at her lowest, the filmmaking offers a consistent high, featuring Gillan at her most magnetic as it peels back the layers of her experience to show all that Liusadh is up against to reclaim some sense of normalcy and not give in to the same despair that felled Ben. Watching her claw her way back results in an all-too-rare film that can be described as life-affirming without ever feeling treacly, and while there’s some irony in the title of Gillan’s debut feature, it does feel like “The Party’s Just Beginning” is the start of something special.