Ally Pankiw’s “I Used to Be Funny” first feature is a provocative, intense, and deeply unsettling gut-punch. [SXSW]

In 2020, during the height of this pandemic were still finding ourselves in, I was sitting on my couch with my partner wondering what to do on the first night of TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) and Twitter was recommending some movie called Shiva Baby (2020). Upon reading the description, it reads “at a Jewish funereal service with her parents, a college student runs into her sugar daddy and her ex-girlfriend” — I was INSTANTLY sold. Upon finishing the movie, it was safe to say that I developed an obsession with Rachel Sennott and have actively pursued everything she has created. When discovering she had TWO movies at SXSW this year, I was hoping to catch one, if not both.

Tackling her first feature, writer/director Ally Pankiw doesn’t take the easy way out, she wrestles a difficult subject and creates a tense, uncomfortable environment for her audience that is broken up with slight comedic moments. The movie follows Sam (Rachel Sennott), a stand-up comic facing some serious PTSD and the difficult challenge of deciding whether or not to join the search for a missing girl, Brooke (Olga Petsa), who she used to nanny. She is joined on this journey by her friends, Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon). Through a series of flashbacks that are intercut between past and present, we follow Sam and we find out that Brooke’s mom was dying and Brooke is not coping well. To give Brooke some company and help her deal with the inevitable tragedy that she was about to be faced with, her aunt, Jill (Dani Kind), and father, Cameron (Jason Jones), hired Sam. At first, Sam is happy to take the job because it is extra income, but she starts to feel uncomfortable as Cameron takes sexist jabs at her and belittles her career choice as a comedian. One night, Cameron has some friends over and crosses a boundary of finding Sam’s comedy on YouTube.


Rachel Sennott as Sam Cowell in director Ally Pankiw’s I USED TO BE FUNNY. Photo courtesy of SXSW/Barn 12 Inc.

What makes I Used to Be Funny so great is, without a doubt, Rachel Sennott. Going from the “lighter” roles she has typically been known for, this very dark, serious, and brief comedic side of her is something audiences haven’t seen yet. Rachel’s previous works of Shiva Baby, Call Your Mother, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and, to even an extent, Tahara, have proved that she has the comedy chops, but the dramatic side she brings to I Used to Be Funny is a side we mostly haven’t seen yet, and she blows audiences away. Her delivery of dialogue and the mannerisms throughout her performance are so nuanced and well done that, at moments, it makes the audience fully forget this is a movie and not an episode of 20/20. Atop Sennott’s standout performance, are her incredible co-stars, with the standout being Olga Petsa (Mixtape), who’s starring in only her second feature. Her ability to convey so much emotion in her performance, and at such a young age, and capture that adolescence sense of not knowing how to process everything that is going in life is perfect to a tee.

With such a strong feature debut from Ally Pankiw, it is easy to say that she is someone to look out for in the future. Her provocative, intense, deeply unsettling film I Used to Be Funny captures the horrors of the world that comes with PTSD. The movie makes you angry, and rightfully so. I Used to Be Funny, simply put, is a gut-punch that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

Screened during SXSW 2023.

For more information, head to the official SXSW I Used to Be Funny webpage.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

SXSW 2023

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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