SXSW 2023 Review: A Musician Struggles to Change Her Tune in the Endearing “Cora Bora”

When Cora (Meg Stalter) comes back to her old stomping grounds of Portland, she is dressed to bring chaos, barreling into town in a leopard print fur coat, yellow plaid pants and black boots that lets people know she’s coming, though you know she’s threw it together without thought. It’s weird to be making a trip where no one wants her to be there, including herself, but she senses some obligation to be at the graduation of her girlfriend Justine (Jojo T. Gibbs) to feel needed rather than actually be, with the two still calling what they have a long-distance thing even though Cora moved away to Los Angeles months ago and asked for an open relationship, so there would be no strings attached.

Still, Cora finds herself tangled up in knots in a disaster of her own making in Hannah Pearl Utt’s warmhearted comedy that in giving Stalter her first starring role after stealing scenes in “Hacks” appears as an inevitable next step towards world domination. Whether or not Rhianon Jones specifically penned the bittersweet ballad of a singer/songwriter for Stalter or not, the actress immediately takes ownership of Cora, first seen warbling the lyrics “Dreams are stupid and so are you for believing in them,” although she’s presumably following hers after leaving the Pacific Northwest behind. Things aren’t looking up for her career with her manager (Chrissie Fit) eyeing an escape to Austin to run a microbrewery and coffee shop gigs unlikely to pay the bills. It isn’t like things would be better back in Portland where she burned bridges and has bad memories, but it would be a change of scenery and like any shark, she must be constantly on the move or die. Cora might choose the latter if she knew what was waiting for her back home, finding that Justine has taken more advantage of their open relationship than she has by having a new girlfriend Riley (Ayden Mayeri) move in, and when her parents (Carrie Armstrong and Darrell Hammond) show up, it’s for them rather than for her.

As in Utt’s previous film “Before You Know It,” there’s never any pretense that what you’re watching isn’t a movie, but the director ably balances out broad comedy with authentic characters and relationship dynamics when much of the humor comes from how oblivious Cora is towards others and much of the pathos emerges from the lack of self-awareness around how she could help herself. She can’t, for instance, bring herself to immediately accept a gracious offer from Tom (Manny Jacinto), an A & R rep for a record label, to keep her guitar in the overhead bin above him after she nearly displaced him in business class and there’s no bin space when she’s sent to the back, but while she’s somewhat content to stumble through life on her own, a growing awareness that she can’t give up on herself when realizing that no matter what she puts others through, they can’t seem to give up on her becomes a real galvanizing element of the film. While Stalter’s comic instincts are unquestionable, she shows some real dramatic chops as well when the roots of Cora’s recent aimlessness are revealed and playing someone who doesn’t have it all together provides an incredible showcase for the actress to show she’s the full package.

“Cora Bora” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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