Intentions always come down to perception. Doesn’t matter how well you intended something to be, how an action or word is received almost always carries more weight. The destructive and rejuvenative power of intent is explored in a surprisingly deep way in director Michael J. Gallagher’s (The Thinning) tragicomedy Funny Story, offering career-redefining performances from leads Matthew Glave (The Wedding Singer) and Emily Bett Rickards (The CW’s Arrow). Even though there’s nothing inherently funny about the main story, one which focuses on familial discord in two separate households, Gallagher and co-writer Steve Greene (The Thinning) manage to find humor in the humanity of the characters, brought to life beautifully from the whole cast.
Walter Campbell (Glave) has two lives. In one, he’s the respected leader of a long-cancelled science-fiction series, adored by fans around the world. In the other, he’s estranged from his daughter Nic (Jana Winternitz) because he cheated on and divorced her mother. Though things have been improving with his daughter over the last year, when Nic cancels a planned trip to see him at the last minute, Walter offers to come join her and her friends on their trip to Big Sur on his way to a science fiction convention in San Francisco. As a favor to Nic, Walter agrees to drive her friend Kim (Rickards) up after her car breaks down. All Walter wants is to make things right with Nic and things seem to be headed in that direction until an accidental indiscretion poses to cause irreparable damage.
Funny Stories operates in an interestingly organized structure. Though it begins in a natural flowing way, Walter talking to his distracted partner Lucy (Daisye Tutor) before the sequence ends and it cuts to Kim, Gallagher utilizes title cards to introduce a shifting in perspectives and to help keep the timeline of events straight. From the start, Gallagher swiftly establishes who the central character is, the hierarchy of significant roles, and narrative tone all in one deft movement. Though the film is easy to follow without them, using the cards clearly signals shifts in the film which might be less understated, reducing the overall efficacy of the narrative. If the story plays out without them, for example, then not knowing how restrictive the timeline is would reduce the inherent tension of Walter’s schedule. He has to be somewhere and the title cards enable that outside strain to remain ever-present. An added bonus being that the title cards, when identifying characters, make the transitions in POV far easier to track. Though Funny Story is Walter’s story, he’s not the only significant character here. In recognizing the intent of the title cards, the audience can better perceive the narrative within. This is particularly important given the introductions to the characters. As mentioned previously, Funny Story is all about intent and perception. As the audience learns from the dialogue of others, Walter is a selfish, destructive individual. However, from watching him, the audience is shown someone who’s kind, yet troubled, and is trying to do better. In the next sequence, which establishes Kim, the audience is shown someone not too dissimilar. Once more, it’s mostly dialogue from others that shapes how the audience perceives Kim until her actions solidify them.
Inherent to the success of Funny Story is the lovely balance of tones the script manages. From the subject matter and personalities of the characters, the film could easily slip comfortably into tragedy, yet through simple delivery and context, there’re far more laughs than you’d expect. In fact, the comedy within Funny Story is as significant to the film as the drama because there’s nothing heightened or exaggerated at any given moment. Instead, the humor comes from the situations we all find ourselves in, not gut-busting guffaws, but the kind of giggles which come from recognizing in a moment the silliness of a thing. When Walter arrives to pick up Kim, he yells if she needs any help with her bags while slurping the remnants of a shake off a straw. His question is all social-norm and no follow through. Rude to be sure, but Glave makes it seem like a rapscallions query. Much later, after the pair have made it to Big Sur, Walter goes to take a shower and is surprised by one of Nic’s friends jumping in with him. Though it’s been made clear by this moment that the girls view Walter as Nic’s father and with no interest as most they are lesbians, his natural discomfort in suddenly showering with someone and therefore bolting from the stall is perceived as adorable. Moments like these underscore what Walter values and, through their humor, balance out the incredible pain coursing through Funny Story. And there is pain. However, as Walter himself says, “sometimes regrets are our blessings.” This notion, when viewed through the whole of Funny Story makes the darkness explored throughout the film more palatable, more heartfelt, more tender.
As strong as the script is and as purposeful the direction is, none of it matters if it’s delivered in a hackney way. Frankly, Glave and Rickards deliver performances which will linger with audiences long after. Considering Glave’s been working since the early ‘90s, it’s difficult not to think he connected in some regard with Walter, an actor most well-known for one role, as he himself is directly connected to the 1998 Adam Sandler film The Wedding Singer. Despite steady work in multiple series and films, it’s his role as the asshole boyfriend Glenn which resonates in audience’s minds. His performance as Walter will undeniably change that. In this one performance, Glave is charming and arrogant, sweet and rude, progressive and stagnant. In a word, he’s human and that humanity makes Walter come to life. For her part, Rickards delivers a devastating performance as Kim. Most well-known for her role as sidekick/love interest/team member on Arrow, audiences never got a chance to see what Rickards is really capable of as an actress. This is not to demean her work on Arrow, which is a fine show whose successes came largely from the dramatic work of the cast, but Kim is not Felicity Smoak. She’s not an idealist whose charms come from her genius and idiosyncrasies. Kim is a living, breathing wrecking ball whom the audience meets at a particularly low point. Rickards not only embodies the rage, despair, and self-loathing Kim feels, but she manages to make Kim sympathetic, channeling the same sense of humanity as Glave which suggests the potential for salvation. In their roles as main supporting cast, Jana Winternitz, Lily Holleman, Nikki Limo, Jessica Diggins, Ashleigh Jensen, and Tutor do more than provide Walter and Kim room to tell their stories with the little their given. Instead, each convey a fullness, an authenticity which only bolster the emotional impact of the narrative.
The intent of Gallagher and Greene’s Funny Story is good. It examines family and trust, pain and loss. It presents characters who are broken and the ways in which they try to repair themselves. For some, that means an endless cycle of bad, consistently demeaning choices. For others, it means recognizing and breaking the cycle. If audiences perceive Funny Story in this way, it’ll make for a remarkable experience if for no other reason than Gallagher and Greene manage to deliver an ending which satisfies, even if inconclusive. But then, as the film implies through design and execution, life has only two concrete moments: a beginning and an end. Everything is just the start of another beginning or a regret which turns into a blessing.
For information on where you can screen Funny Story, head to the official website.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital beginning May 24th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.