In an airport parking garage, Martine (Olivia Thirlby) says goodbye to the guy who has driven her there. Pressing her against his car, he gives her a long smooch and grinds his hips against hers. It’s like sex standing up. A multimedia artist with short, dark hair and a pretty pout that invites kissing, Martine is flying from New York City, where she may have conquered many more hearts than her driver’s, to Los Angeles. She should come affixed with a warning — Do Not Touch, No Matter How Tempted. Or a scarlet letter: A for Adulterously Attractive.
Not that there’s anything malicious or predatory about Martine. She’s just the cookie jar that guys want to screw open, and the main source of erotic friction in the appealing dramedy Nobody Walks, which director Ry Russo-Young wrote with Lena Dunham. Yes, Lena Dunham!, the Girls girl who, though the movie boasts many worthy actors, is for now the most notable name on the credits (hence our headline). Though Nobody Walks bears superficial similarities to such post-nuclear-family indie films as The Kids Are All Right, the movie is more subtle, pensive, alarming… I’m tempted to say “European,” but I don’t want to suggest it’s mopey or minimalist, or has the lamp odor of homework. There’s vitality and humor here, and the constant promise of guilty sex among two generations of Californians. Is this Freudian or Jungian? No: Russo-Youngian.
Out in L.A. to finish a short film about insects, Martine will be staying in the guest house of Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), a therapist, and her husband Peter (John Krasinski), a sound editor who has agreed, pro bono, to provide an aural landscape for the film. Martine tells him she wants ”sounds that only ants can hear”; “blond pavement”; “skin on skin.” That last description, soon accompanied by a sympathetic hug, would soften or harden any man, even a guy who, at fortysomething, still loves his wife.
Peter isn’t the only besotted soul; nearly everyone in the movie’s post-nuclear family is driven by love. Peter’s assistant David (Rhys Wakefield) makes a play for Martine. Julie’s 16-year-old daughter Kolt (India Ennenga) pines for David and buries her face and her passions in his discarded flannel shirt. Kolt’s schoolmate Avi (Sam Lerner) is her unrequited lover; and Marcello (Emanuelle Secci), who home-schools Kolt in Italian, might be more interested in his pupil than is seemly. At work, Julie’s impatient patient Billy (Justin Kirk, in the Jeff Goldblumish role of the mouthy half-charmer) tosses off misogynist epigrams — ”A lot of smart women think too much to look good and talk too much to f— well” — before telling her of the sex dreams in which she prominently figures.
If not quite Schnitzler’s La Ronde, since few of these affairs are consummated and nobody gets syphilis, the movie does lead its characters on a roundelay of proxy or vicarious sexual adventures. They yearn for their love objects and settle for second-best. In the audience, we monitor their movements — both sympathetically, as a mirror into our own foibles, and objectively, as we would the parade of ants or the rituals of scorpions in the glimpses we get of Martine’s film.
Plenty of movies have turned their off-camera drama into gossip, with stories about sex on the set; this may be the first film about promiscuity in post-production. But the true subject here isn’t moviemaking; it’s the ardor that old romantic films used to stoke — as gorgeous stars in 50-foot closeups celebrated their oneness with a cigarette, two glasses of champagne and some Max Steiner violins — and which the little people watching these rapturous fantasies rashly applied to their own lives. Nobody Walks updates that grand and foolish impulse by acknowledging the seductive musk of attractive people in close proximity, in an age when fidelity is just the longest f-word.
Russo-Young and Dunham developed the Nobody Walks script a couple years back at the Sundance Institute. The movie might be a piquant tangent in Dunham’s flourishing career, but it’s central to Russo-Young’s. Her previous feature, the 2009 You Wont Miss Me (the lack of apostrophe, hers), focused on a young woman (cowriter Stella Schnabel) who was much less particular than Martine about the men she slept with. The new film covers similar ground on the opposite coast: Martine stirs up intimacy, then lets her conquests figure out what to do with it.
In a movie whose most violent act is the throwing of a bicycle into a swimming pool, and where people often speak in whispers, as if there’s been a death in the family (another challenge for a sound editor), the acting ensemble is crucial. Everyone’s really fine. Dylan McDermott drops a tab of star quality when he briefly shows up as Julie’s ex and Kolt’s dad. Krasinski plops into his Martine infatuation like a poodle in a puddle — bleakly aware of how dirty he must look, yet helpless to shake it off. As the women on his mind, Thirlby (The Darkest Hour, Dredd) is compulsively stare-at-able, and DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married) lasers out a reassuring beauty that invites endearments and confessions. One’s hot, the other’s warm; and the viewer’s pleasure, unlike Peter’s misery, is that he needn’t choose between them.
Three other things about Nobody Walks: 1. Pay attention to the musical score, by Will Bates of the Brooklyn group Fall on Your Sword; it sounds like a moony hipster’s noodling on the church organ. 2. You have to give credit to a film that can organically interpolate the line, “I provoked him with my angry poem,” without triggering smirks. And 3. The bug movie looks good, too.