×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Shelf Life

Tamar Halpern's whip-smart "Shelf Life" posits the public library as a war zone between a free spirit and a power-addled librarian, and taps into a fresh source for American comedy. Prime for fest circulation, Halpern's second feature will draw considerably more attention than her debut, "Memphis Bound and Gagged."

With:
With: Betsy Brandt, Elisa Bocanegra, Joe Smith, Ryan Spahn, William Jones, Bonnie J. Kirk, Holgie Forrester.

Tamar Halpern’s whip-smart “Shelf Life” posits the public library as a war zone between a free spirit and a power-addled librarian, and taps into a fresh source for American comedy. Before its female combatants exit on a startling note of metaphysical freedom, pic is a lean, elemental clash of characters that can be read as standing in for the country’s larger cultural battles. Prime for fest circulation, Halpern’s second feature will draw considerably more attention than her debut, “Memphis Bound and Gagged.”

Black-garbed, slightly punkish Nikki Reynolds (Betsy Brandt) is ready to face off with head librarian Betty Bonhauser (Elisa Bocanegra) in a typically bland library that Betty rules like a self-appointed potentate, when, suddenly, the pair — bedraggled and dirty — is shown trying to explain themselves (in direct address to the camera) to their unseen boss behind a huge executive desk.

This is pic’s “Rashomon” nod, as each claim by Betty is matched by Nikki, illustrated in flashbacks. Nikki arrives to work at the library as part of her overall drug recovery program, which includes having to live at home with her odd mom (Holgie Forrester) and pee in a cup on a daily basis. Betty’s instantly suspicious of her and resents Nikki’s supposedly special handling care of her Uncle Tommy (William Jones), a local pol running for mayor.

When Betty accuses Nikki of stealing a dictionary and summons Sgt. Knofelmacher (Bonnie J. Kirk), Nikki enlists the moral support of insecure assistant librarian Ronald (Joe Smith, in a sweetly hilarious comic turn). The clash escalates, with Nikki’s on-and-off beau Jarrett (Ryan Spahn) ending up in bed with Betty.

It’s hard to remember another movie that has turned library storytelling sessions for kids into a rebellious act, or that lends the mere reading of a book (in this case, Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”) the weight of a life-changing event. If anything dampens pic’s pleasures, it’s Bocanegra’s forced airs as the huffy Betty in a perf that plays all the way to the back of the house and beyond.

On the other hand, Brandt (also in Halpern’s “Memphis”) wins hearts with a breezy charm that works as effectively on auds as it does on Ronald. Halpern’s filmmaking remains cool throughout, a nice match for Steve Elkin’s clean lensing.

Pic has no connection to the late Paul Bartel’s 1993 feature of the same name.

Popular on Variety

Shelf Life

Production: A Needs More Nudity Prods. production. Produced by Tamar Halpern. Co-producers, Liz Leifer, Robin Muir. Directed, written by Tamar Halpern.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Steve Elkins; editor, Susan Kass Hoover; music, Kaveh Rastegar; art director, Robert Morris; costume designer, Vaike Alexandra Koiv ; sound, Chris "CQ" Quilty ; sound designer, Michael Kowalski; assistant director, Colin Long. Reviewed on videocassette, Los Angeles, May 13, 2005. (In Dances With Films.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With: With: Betsy Brandt, Elisa Bocanegra, Joe Smith, Ryan Spahn, William Jones, Bonnie J. Kirk, Holgie Forrester.

More Film

  • Film director and scriptwriter Vojtech Jasny

    Vojtech Jasny, Award-Winning Czech Filmmaker, Dies at 93

    Czech filmmaker Vojtech Jasny, director of “All My Good Countrymen,” which won the best director prize at Cannes in 1969, has died. He was 93. According to the Associated Press, Slovacke divadlo, a theatre he frequently visited, said that Jasny died Friday, and a family representative confirmed his death to the CTK news agency. Jasny [...]

  • Noelle Anna Kendrick

    Film Review: 'Noelle' on Disney Plus

    What do you get when you toss together Christmas cheer, Christmas kitsch, a fish-out-of-the-North-Pole setup swiped from “Elf,” and a plot that turns on whether Kris Kringle’s daughter, played as a perky naïf by Anna Kendrick, has what it takes to step into her dad’s snow boots? You get a plastic icicle like “Noelle,” Long [...]

  • Scandalous

    Film Review: 'Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer'

    When grocery store shoppers snag a copy of Weekly World News (the rag responsible for the refuses-to-die “Bat Child” hoax), they know they’re getting fake news. But when they pick up the National Enquirer, it’s a far more ambiguous prospect. Enquirer headlines are deliberately provocative, shouting details of the private lives of real people — [...]

  • Cynthia Erivo

    Cynthia Erivo Almost Gave Up Singing to Become a Spinal Surgeon

    Before Cynthia Erivo went on to become a Tony and Grammy winner, she nearly gave up singing to be a spinal surgeon. In her “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors” conversation with Alfre Woodard, the “Harriet” star said she had been singing since she was toddler. Her mother noticed she’d hum while eating her food when [...]

  • Alfre Woodard Cynthia Erivo Variety Actors

    How Cynthia Erivo and Alfre Woodard Found Deeper Meaning in ‘Harriet’ and ‘Clemency’

    Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”) and Alfre Woodard (“Clemency”) sat down for a chat for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” For more, click here. Cynthia Erivo and Alfre Woodard are at the forefront of this year’s awards conversation for two prestige films directed by black women. In Chinonye Chukwu’s “Clemency,” a movie that won the Sundance Grand [...]

  • Rocketman Taron Egerton

    'Rocketman' Hair and Make-Up Artist Talks Transforming Taron Egerton

    Hair and make-up artist Lizzie Yianni-Georgiou sums up “Rocketman” as the story “of a great icon who hits rock bottom. You see the great things happen and he hits rock bottom. By the end, he’s pulled himself together and he’s still standing.” For the viewer, it’s a rollercoaster ride of emotion, but as Yianni-Georgiou says, [...]

  • FORD V. FERRARI

    Box Office: 'Ford v Ferrari' Dashing to No. 1 While 'Charlie's Angels' Flounders

    Christian Bale and Matt Damon’s racing drama “Ford v Ferrari” is set to win the weekend box office by a long shot with an esimated $29 million from 3,528 domestic locations. Elizabeth Banks’ “Charlie’s Angels” reboot could land in a distant second in its debut weekend with about $8.2 million, but the second frame of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content