Review: Jonathan Smith Pulls the Best Out of “The Worst Year of My Life”

With a title like “The Worst Year of My Life,” you know that the happy couple you see celebrating New Year’s Eve together, kissing each other a full minute before Auld Lang Syne and whispering “I love you” into each other’s ear, can’t possibly last for long. Yet for 10 minutes we’re treated to glimpses of three-year romance of Kyle (Trevor St. John David) and Amber (Amy Vorpahl), a whirlwind that begins from the former offering Amber an empty seat at a theater and eventually ends with her leaving Kyle empty hearted when she decides to cheat with a friend at a party.

However, infidelity isn’t entirely to blame for their breakup, which is an indication of what makes “The Worst Year of My Life” so unique. A rare romantic comedy where you see that the characters have lives outside of each other, first-time writer/director Jonathan Smith shows what Kyle describes at one point as “the little hurts that build up over time,” the differential in personality, ambition and responsibility that begin to be exposed once the initial passion of a relationship starts to dull. Rather than reduce Kyle and Amber’s incompatibilities to cliches or a shallow payoff for a single joke, the film shows how their varying level of success at their jobs, the advice they receive from their parents or their ever changing tastes shape their attitudes, no small feat, and lets something both actually comic and romantic grow out of it as the two seek new possibilities away from each other.

Trevor St. John David and Amy Vorpahl in "The Worst Year of My Life"It wouldn’t be surprising to learn Smith may have seen “(500) Days of Summer” during the conception of his second feature, employing visual panache and a similarly flashback-heavy structure, though he manages to make it his own. If there’s a design flaw, it’s when the film settles down to follow Kyle through therapy, a conceit that allows Smith to play to his strengths by staging flights of fancy where Kyle recalls his relationship through such scenes as 1950s dating shows and boxing matches, but requires stationary scenes of Kyle sitting and talking to his therapist Jennifer (Cate Beehan). While the film thankfully avoids the trap suggested by having an attractive actress in Beehan who doesn’t seem to have much use for the glasses she wears playing Jennifer, the character also isn’t gifted with much personality as she prods Kyle with questions, making their sit-down interactions a continual drag on the story.

Still, Smith keeps things on the move, and while the constraints of a limited budget are evident at times, his deft editing, the surehanded, consistently fluid camerawork of Matt Gulley and a buoyant score from Julia Meinwald propel it right along. Still, although it has the breeziness that can only exist in a movie, “The Worst Year of My Life” feels impressively authentic, hardly shying away from the less romantic aspects of finding someone to spend the rest of your life with while capturing the exhilarating high of actually finding such a person, making the misery alluded to in the title well worth the struggle.

“The Worst Year of My Life” opens in Los Angeles at the Arena Cinema on February 13th.

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