The journey proves as rewarding as the destination in “Lucky Them,” a low-key charmer starring Toni Collette as a rock critic searching for the musician who mysteriously vanished 10 years earlier, abandoning her and his many fans. That may sound like a too-tidy road-trip setup on paper, but any excuse to stick Collette in an RV with Thomas Haden Church (as an amateur documentary filmmaker who tags along) turns out to be a good one in this terrifically acted dramedy directed by rising talent Megan Griffiths. Spiked with humor and lovingly set against Seattle’s indie-music scene, the film should enjoy a modest theatrical run before settling into smallscreen rotation.
The script was loosely drawn from the experiences of actress-turned-writer Emily Wachtel (who co-wrote with Huck Botko), whose alter ego here is Ellie Klug (Collette), a critic and feature writer for Seattle-based rock magazine Stax. Getting on in years and stuck in a rut of too many late nights spent drinking and hooking up with younger musicians, Ellie has never fully recovered from being dumped a decade earlier by Matthew Smith, the legendary artist whom she helped discover, but who vanished abruptly one night, never to be heard from again.
In a scene that will ring especially true for journalists in the audience, Ellie’s editor (Oliver Platt, excellent) informs her that in light of Stax’s poor performance and the decline of print media in general, she must reclaim her position at the magazine, as well as her now-dwindling readership, by writing a really killer story. Thus he strongarms her into doing a piece, timed for the upcoming 10th anniversary of Matthew’s disappearance, that will blend her personal recollections with an investigation into his whereabouts (despite persistent rumors that he went the way of Kurt Cobain and too many others like him).
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By way of a few plot complications that are dispensed with lightly enough to avoid taxing credibility, Ellie is accompanied on her quest by Charlie (Church), an old flame and independently wealthy dilettante who insists on making her journey the subject of first documentary. Their travels lead them down a blind alley or two, then on a more productive venture down memory lane, as Ellie fondly and wistfully recalls her early experiences meeting Matthew, falling in love with him and encouraging his talent in an ultimately star-making direction.
If “Lucky Them” even qualifies as a road movie, it’s an unusual one in that it doesn’t track one long trip, as Ellie and Charlie typically drive around the Pacific Northwest for a few hours, then return to Seattle to resume their normal lives. That stop-and-go rhythm proves ideal for a film that often feels shaggy and discursive in its storytelling, but whose digressions are in fact its primary source of pleasure. It’s endearing to watch Ellie try fend off the charmingly assertive advances of Lucas (Ryan Eggold), an up-and-coming singer-guitarist who comes off as more than just one-night-stand material, while romantic shenanigans of a broader and loopier sort are provided by Charlotte (Ahna O’Reilly), a bubble-headed animal-rights activist whom Charlie impulsively falls for.
But the film’s truest and most meaningful chemistry is generated by Ellie and Charlie, two individuals who are so fun to hang out with that they justify even the film’s flimsiest narrative setups. Prone to spouting hilarious non sequiturs and eccentric pronouncements about himself (“There’s a crispness to my writing that I enjoy,” he marvels as he signs a check), which prove occasionally annoying to Ellie but never to the audience, Charlie is a genuinely original comic creation and probably Church’s most winning bigscreen role since “Sideways.” Dark-haired for a change, wearing glasses and a mustache, the actor taps into his usual flair for comic relief, only this time in a smarter, more sophisticated register that only renders the character all the more sublimely ridiculous.
In the end, however, it’s Collette’s show, and the actress fully conveys the brittle, hard-edged cynicism of someone who’s been around the block a few times, jaded by years of exposure to the empty promises and broken dreams that proliferate on her chosen beat. But there’s also an inner spark, a radiant openness that can emerge unexpectedly in good company, suggesting the possibility of regeneration if she can pull herself together enough to put the past behind her. Unfocused as “Lucky Them” feels at times, it generates a surprising degree of suspense as it barrels toward its final revelations, culminating in an unexpectedly emotional payoff played with piercing delicacy by Collette and an unbilled actor in a beautifully judged cameo.
Working in a decidedly different register from that of her 2012 human-trafficking drama “Eden,” Griffiths makes excellent use of her expanded resources here, delivering a smooth, professional tech package on a modest budget. As lensed by versatile d.p. Ben Kutchins, the scenes set in Seattle, shot in dim reds and golds and suffused with a mild atmosphere of grunge, contrast nicely with outdoor shots of the rural and forested areas where Ellie and Charlie’s investigation takes them. Craig Wedren’s score supplements a soundtrack (credited to music supervisor Joe Rudge and music consultant Amine Ramer) that, as befits the film’s milieu, offers pleasingly eclectic and full-bodied accompaniment.