Maggie Kiley’s first feature, “Brightest Star,” has all the trappings of a contemporary romantic comedy, but also the good sense to strive for a deeper examination of a young man’s search for his place in the universe. Expanded from Kiley’s 2009 short, “Some Boys Don’t Leave,” which starred Jesse Eisenberg, the full-length pic toplining smallscreen star Chris Lowell (“Veronica Mars,” “Enlisted”) premiered at the 2013 Austin Film Festival under the title “Light Years.” It’s a modestly scaled drama that’s a solid fit for day-and-date VOD and limited theatrical release, with a shot at a brighter future than most under-the-radar indies.
Opening with a young man (Lowell) passed out on the floor of an apartment, abandoned by his ex-girlfriend, Charlotte (Rose McIver), the storyline unfolds along two timelines. In the past, the pic tracks his pursuit of dream girl Charlotte, which begins in a college astronomy class and ultimately fizzles when she tires of his slacker tendencies. In the present, the young man starts dating the apartment’s new tenant, a hipster songstress (Jessica Szohr) whose businessman father (Clark Gregg) provides him with a cushy management job just to keep his daughter happy. Past and present collide when the young man uses his new position to reconnect with Charlotte.
In a way, “Brightest Star” mines some of the same road-to-adulthood territory as Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig did in “Frances Ha,” but with the gender reversal of a female filmmaker and male protagonist. The balanced point of view (Kiley collaborated on the script with Matthew Mullen) lends the work a fresher perspective than that of a typical sad-sack dude drama, although Kiley falls notably short when it comes to fleshing out supporting characters and illuminating the specifics of the world they inhabit.
The best example of the film’s at times frustratingly vague approach is that Lowell’s main character never merits a name (end credits simply call him “the Boy”). Fortunately, Lowell’s considerable charm goes a long way toward filling in the gaps and the story’s emphasis on self-discovery over romantic couplings supplies enough interest to sustain the brisk 80-minute running time.
It also helps that Kiley observes her characters with a consistently non-judgmental eye. Pic’s portrait of courtship veers toward the cutesy (bonding over baseball teams and mac ‘n’ cheese) and the dual love interests would benefit from sharper writing, but McIver at least hints at the more complicated woman lurking beneath the surface of her boyfriend’s blind affection. A late-arriving Allison Janney practically walks off with the movie as an astronomer who gently nudges the hero to face his problems rather than run from them.
Tech package is straightforward, though d.p. Chayse Irvin does a respectable job differentiating the visual motifs of various timelines. Soundtrack blends predictably angsty indie rock with trendier electronic pop tracks.