Richly endowed with true-to-life moments, a generosity of spirit and an unsentimental perspective on the quarter-life crisis, nano-budgeted indie “The New Year” represents a glowing coming-out party for its debutant writer-director Brett Haley and star Trieste Kelly Dunn. Both still have room for improvement, and it’s hard to see this pic venturing too far beyond fests, but it feels like a film destined for later rediscovery by cineastes curious to see the first flowering of two serious talents.
To refer to Dunn as the pic’s star is almost inappropriate: Though she appears in every scene, hers is an intensely internal character loath to take decisive action, and Dunn’s understated perf never strains to reach “star-turn” territory with inappropriate actorly gestures. Yet there’s an ineluctable intensity to this actress, and an uncommon ability to suggest a complex internal life without broadcasting exactly what that internal life might contain. She plays Sunny, an almost faultlessly sweet twentysomething who dropped out of college several years ago to help care for her cancer-stricken father, and in doing so established a pleasant little rut from which she has no idea how to escape.
Nor is she sure she even wants to: She has a nice enough (though hardly lucrative) job at a bowling alley, a schlubby yet sweet boyfriend (Kevin Wheatley), and a spunky best friend (Linda Lee McBride) with a likably dense, wannabe b-boy fiance (David McElfresh). (Though these characters can sometimes veer toward romantic-comedy-like stereotypes, they’re always allowed to be sympathetically human, and, refreshingly, never seem to be mere support beams for the protagonist.)
Yet the holiday season sees the return of Isaac (Ryan Hunter), Sunny’s former high school rival, now living a comparably illustrious life as an up-and-coming standup comic in New York. And Sunny’s feelings of entrapment, as well as a premature seven-year itch, begin to percolate.
Each of these rather predictable dilemmas laid out at the beginning — sick father, long-simmering jealousy, artistic frustration, forbidden romantic attraction — will come into play later on, though rarely in the ways one would expect. This is not a movie of drastic choices or climaxes, and that turns out to be its main strength. As in real life, sometimes tiny gestures signify everything, and seemingly fateful decisions turn out to be easily reversed. There is no “right guy” Sunny has to chose; nor is it a foregone conclusion that she ought to be out taking on the world like her counterpart. There are worse fates to suffer than a comfortable, steady life, and Sunny and the filmmakers are mature enough to recognize this even as they limn the frustrations it engenders.
While director Haley gets the big picture absolutely right, he does sometimes suffer a few hiccups on the smaller details. A few bites of arch dialogue are several degrees too clever, and Sunny’s sporadically suggested desire to become a writer could have come straight from a screenwriting manual: Both feel as though they’re remnants of a more conventional first draft that should have been trimmed back to accommodate the film’s more naturalistic rhythms.
Technically, pic is made quite well considering the filmmakers’ meager resources (a reported $8,000 budget), and Pensacola locations are photographed vividly.