SXSW 2023 Review: A Self-Awareness Grows in Lisa Steen’s Lovely “Late Bloomers”

Louise (Karen Gillan) always seems to be dragging something around in “Late Bloomers,” unwilling to give up carrying her guitar case when she is forced to get around on crutches and unable to remove any number of messages from her cell phone when a variety of emotions prevents her from letting them go. She still thinks there’s hope to reunite with her ex Joel, even though they last saw each other years ago, only to find quite literally that his door is closed and trying to get into the window leads her to break her pelvis, an injury that would seem to confirm her greatest fears when it makes physical the thought that’s been in her mind for some time that she’s past her prime, sitting amongst the seniors she’s dread becoming as she pursues rehab from a literal hip replacement.

A feeling of losing something really gives something to hold onto in Lisa Steen’s winning dramedy where Louise comes to make a deal with her roommate Antonina (Malgorzata Zajaczkowska) at the hospital following her fall, or rather her granddaughter Sylvia (Michelle Twarowska) when Antonina speaks no English whatsoever as a Polish immigrant as stubborn as acceding to the world in front of her as Louise and the two would seem to take an instant dislike to each other. However, as unhealthy as it is for her at times, writer Anna Greenfield shrewdly recognizes it’s in Louise’s nature not to abandon people and Antonina finds herself in a bind, requiring a nanny to watch over her if she doesn’t want to be sent to an assisted care facility where she’ll feel cooped up since Sylvia has her hands full with work and Louise could use the cash when there are bills to pay to take care of her own mother (Talia Balsam), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

It isn’t a surprise that Louise and Antonina start to warm to each other after entering the arranged marriage, even endearing themselves to Louise’s roomie Brick (Jermaine Fowler) to the point of not minding another person under their roof, but the film continues a streak of unexpected turns from Gillan, who has excelled at playing characters who struggle to get out of their own way, whether it was literally trying to kill off the worst version of herself as a clone in “Dual” or looking for a ticket out of her small town that didn’t involve taking her life after her friend did in her sharp directorial debut “The Party’s Just Beginning.” Often affecting a flat monotone at first that gradually comes alive, the actress has shown a fearlessness towards playing those who have lost confidence in their voice and appears always willing to show the awkwardness involved in finding their way back, a fact Steen exploits to its full potential when “Late Bloomers” comes by the ridiculous sight gags of Louise engaging in activities well beyond her years and having to deal with emotional issues that should be just as far off in the future from the same truthful place.

Steen shows this kind of conscientiousness throughout her feature debut, making small, savvy decisions like casting Kevin Nealon without a joke to tell as Louise’s father, knowing what his presence will mean for the film’s seriocomic tone and the baggage an audience might bring to it, and “Late Bloomers” has a wisdom well beyond its years, breezily entertaining in the moment but lingering far longer when it is so humanely observed.

“Late Bloomers” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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