Reminiscent of 2010 Sundance breakout “The Kids Are All Right,” Ry Russo-Young’s “Nobody Walks” captures the fallout of an open-minded Los Angeles family shaken up by the arrival of a sexy outsider, only this time, it’s the outsider whose perspective takes precedence. A fine cast and co-writer Lena Dunham’s wit give such navel gazing a palatable, commercially viable shape, with Olivia Thirlby playing a New Yorker invited to stay with friends of friends in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood while she puts the finishing touches on a film project. There’s something about her that men find irresistible, and the resulting tension soon disrupts the delicate ecosystem.
Whereas Russo-Young’s two earlier features, “Orphans” and “You Won’t Miss Me,” felt like filmmaking-as-therapy, “Nobody Walks” puts more distance between the director and her protagonist. As Martine, a fetching demi-hipster with big eyes and a Jean Seberg bob, Thirlby arrives in L.A. at the complete mercy of hosts Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her sound-designer husband Peter (John Krasinski): Martine doesn’t drive (hence the title); she bunks in the couple’s pool house and depends on Peter to mix her short film as a freebie between studio gigs. What she hadn’t expected was to become Peter’s newfound infatuation.Unlike other films of this sort, even though Martine is sexually liberated enough to enjoy a convenient no-strings shag, she’s never seen asking for the inappropriate advances made toward her.
With this inadvertently seductive stranger under their roof, DeWitt and Krasinski are terrific as partners put to the test. A perceptive therapist with two children from her previous marriage, Julie quickly picks up on Peter’s crush, trusting he’ll be mature enough to resist. “The Office’s” Krasinski is such an appealing actor that his likability serves to complicate Peter’s behavior in interesting ways: Can a creep really be so charming? And does his infidelity justify Julie stepping out with one of her patients (Justin Kirk, amusing as a horny, insecure showbiz hack)?
Despite choosing to focus primarily on Martine, Russo-Young bucks the solipsism of her previous pics, inviting us to identify with all of her characters, including Julie’s 16-year-old daughter Kolt (India Ennenga), who’s just beginning to realize her own sexual power in subplots involving her stepdad’s studly assistant (Rhys Wakefield), her inappropriately flirtatious Italian tutor (Emanuele Secci) and an awkward boy from school (Sam Lerner).
Though it appears to take a rather casual view of sex, the film manages to present an extremely moralistic scenario without judgment. With no real plot to speak of — at least, to the extent that the only goal being pursued is Martine’s attempt to finish her movie — “Nobody Walks” is free to study the shifting chemistry between characters and the impact their choices have on those around them.
With such a limited scope, the story could easily have been improvised oncamera over a long weekend at a friend’s Hollywood home with no budget or production values, but Russo-Young has graduated beyond her scrappy mumblecore-based roots. Instead, “Nobody Walks” looks and sounds great, beautifully lit and lensed by Christopher Blauvelt, assisted by a hip/hypnotic score from Fall on Your Sword (a band co-founded by former LCD Soundsystem guitarist Phil Mossman) and professionally cut together by accomplished doc editor John Walter. In other words, “Nobody Walks” feels like a real movie.
Most importantly, it results from a proper script, developed with Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”) at the Sundance Institute. The resulting feature not only understands the importance of subtext, trusting its cast to convey certain ideas through expressions rather than dialogue, but also incorporates a welcome amount of humor, which softens the discomfort of watching behavior that might otherwise seem degrading. Though the laughs are a welcome addition, one of the film’s limitations is that it fails to deliver the sort of squirm-inducing moments that make equivalent indies feel so unnervingly honest. Keeping awkward moments in check and restoring everything to the status quo at the end, “Nobody Walks” plays it safe when it could have made our skin crawl — perhaps that is what’s lost when mumblecore learns to articulate itself.