Michelle Morgan and Dree Hemingway in "L.A. Times"

Sundance ’17 Review: “L.A. Times” Craftily Captures a Cultural Moment

Given how image conscious everyone is in her directorial debut “L.A. Times,” it’s a good thing Michelle Morgan makes quite the first impression. Written, directed, starring and perhaps catered by Morgan, you will believe she’s capable of just about anything, creating an wickedly funny comedy of manners in the City of Angels where you’d be hard be hard-pressed to find anyone deserving of wings. Instead, everyone’s an aspiring screenwriter, talking up the script they have, soon to be financed by “a really rich Brazilian guy” whose name they can’t seem to remember, and planning game nights where the often infantile nature of Hollywood culture is exposed for what it is.

Unfortunately, Annette (Morgan) isn’t a fan of Twister, but may have to pretend for a time after initiating a breakup with Elliott (Jorma Taccone), her boyfriend of five-and-a-half years. Thinking that the relationship has grown stale and that others around her are happier, she thrusts herself back into the dating pool with her best friend Baker (Dree Hemingway), who is reluctant to tell Annette she’s found at least some form of companionship in having an affair with her client (Tate Donovan) on an interior design job and the promise of dating a co-worker of her cousin (Kentucker Audley). Annette has no trouble finding a place to live, housesitting for a friend (Nora Zehetner) who traveled to Vancouver for her boyfriend’s acting gig, but feeling settled is another matter entirely. As Annette struggles with her newfound singledom, so does Elliott, who may have an easier time of it with a hit TV show on the air as a pickup line, but inadvertently finds himself preferring the company of a lady of the night (Margarita Levieva).

While Morgan keeps the not-so-romantic roundabout spinning, she mercilessly hones in on the idea that love is less of a factor than comfort in picking a partner, one of the many discomfiting yet shrewd observations about modern relationships. In a film that envisions a generation weened on iPhones as collectors of obscure facts but less interest in how the real world works, the writer/director exploits that gap in which a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and the inability to communicate exactly what people feel to create more and more outrageous comic situations. The film’s edge is only sharpened by cinematographer Nicholas Wiesnet’s evocative use of framing, enchantingly beautiful, but full of static shots and abstract framing to make the characters feel stifled and disconnected from anything outside their gilded nests, as well as a classical score of Vivaldi and Gilbert and Sullivan, among others, that raises the stakes of mundane conversations to the level of life or death that all of the film’s Angelenos irrationally feel. Others have used a similar juxtaposition to great effect – Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” comes to mind, as do the films of Whit Stillman – but Morgan has fashioned something with a bewitching style all its own.

A very talented ensemble cast, willing to go everywhere its writer/director is, greatly elevates “L.A. Times,” but the film should be celebrated first and foremost as the introduction of a fresh, fierce new voice in Morgan. Consistently taking chances on pleasingly oddball ideas to accompany finely crafted one-liners, the filmmaker assuredly balances tone and multiple storylines, showing the confidence that her onscreen alter ego is in search of. To watch Morgan find it on both sides of the camera (eventually, in the case of Annette) is truly a joy to behold.

“L.A. Times” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays once more at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27th at 3:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema 1.

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