Is there some sort of stealth Remember-the-Nineties indie-film revival going on? A few weeks ago, we got Hotel Artemis, a microwaved slab of postmodern pulp fiction that channeled the moment when Tarantino-lite was a mini-genre. (It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to take back every bad thing you ever said about Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.) And now there’s writer-director Christian Papierniak’s self-conscious character study about a young woman named Izzy (Mackenzie Davis) who has to stop her ex-boyfriend (Alex Russell) from marrying someone else. Its failed-musician heroine is the sort of scrappy slacker screw-up that you’d have encountered in low-budget movies carbon-dated to the Clinton era, its soundtrack drops riot-grrl deep cuts and its title suggests someone trying too hard to impress old-school Sundance programmers. Some things are indeed timeless – like acoustic cover versions of college-rock songs (more on that later) – but given the vintage alt-culture vibe, you’d swear this blast of Hot Topic Cinema had been spat out of a time machine.
We meet Izzy at a low point, hungover in a stranger’s bed and her caterer’s outfit dotted with either blood or booze (or both). Staggering into the noonday L. A. sun, she gets a phone call: Her true love’s engagement party is happening tonight. This is Izzy’s last chance to convince him he’s making a mistake. She just has to hightail it to Los Feliz before he’s gone forever, which is easier said than done when you’re halfway across town and have no car, no money, no real friends, no future.
So bopping down the Miracle Mile we go, running into all sorts of oddball Angelenos: helicopter pilots and green-haired roommates (technically Izzy is sleeping on her couch), scaredy-cat dudes who outsource break-ups and pink-power-suit–wearing break-in artists, amateur mechanics and reclusive painters. The fact that so many of these folks are played by faces you’ll recognize – hey, it’s Atlanta‘s Lakeith Stanfield, and there’s Alia Shawkat and Haley Joel Osment, and is that Annie Potts? – only reinforces the Nineties indie guest-star sensation. And while her odyssey in miniature allows for Izzy to come into contact with lots of different folks, there’s no real sense that these kooks and freaks represent a symbolic cross-section of the City of Angels’ citizens, or margin dwellers, or beautiful dreamers. Each encounter feels like a dollop of celebrity spice in between chapter headings (“Chapter 1: I Need My Car, Dick!”) and split-screen interludes and color-tinted surreality. (For the latter, Izzy gets to converse with both her older and her younger self. It’s that type of film.)
There are two major saving graces in Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town, however – one them being the woman who plays Izzy herself. A Canadian actor best know for being one half of a stellar double act on Halt and Catch Fire and in everyone’s favorite/least bleak Black Mirror episode (“San Junipero”), Davis is a performer who somehow seems both wispy and steely at the same time. Which is the exact quality, it turns out, that this character needs to cut through Papierniak’s too-cool-for-film-school tics and resemble something close to an actual thirtysomething fuck-up. It helps that Davis is insanely charismatic onscreen, but her ability to showcase the vulnerability and scar tissue beneath this human embodiment of an extended middle finger gives the movie a semblance of depth. She can make its puffier moments feel heavier, give its punkish blasts of energy a focus. She can hold a shot of a person walking down the street for several minutes and fool you into thinking you’ve seen an epiphany happen.
And, it turns out, she can sing. The undisputed single best scene in Izzy comes at you like a wrecking ball roughly past the halfway point. Having Razor-scootered and sauntered and slouched her way across the city, our tour guide ends up peering through a window of an afternoon get-together and catching a bottle-blonde lady en flagrante delicto. The woman, it turns out, is Izzy’s sister, played by Carrie Coon; the guy she’s getting hot and heavy with is not her spouse. They argue, viciously. Izzy’s brother-in-law (Rob Huebel) comes in and, in an act of extreme passive-aggressiveness, goads them to perform for the party’s guests. The siblings used to be a musical duo, long before it all went to shit. He hands them guitars. They reluctantly go into their old closing number: a Heavens to Betsy song titled “Axemen.”
Papierniak then proceeds to film them screaming and harmonizing their way through this cryptic Corin Tucker ditty, all pep rallies and inchoate rage, simply by toggling between close-ups of the two actors. (The actual playing is courtesy of guitarist Andrew Brassell; you don’t see them strumming. You don’t need to.) Neither of them are looking at each other when they start. By the time they get to the last verse, the sisters are staring each other down, goading each other on. Then some sort of emotional dam breaks, and you get to see a legacy of pain and bad blood wash through these two women, then rush right past them. It’s simply two people using a song to work through their issues, told through the actors’ expressions – and the result is pure transcendental Goosebump City. You suddenly find yourself blessed with a perfectly conceived sequence, one that travels farther and covers more ground in three and a half minutes then the rest of Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town does in 90. It’s so good you’re not even sure the movie deserves it. It’s almost enough to recommend the movie. Almost.