There’s a gentle streak of defensiveness built into the very title of “My Art,” a late-in-the-game debut feature from veteran artist and photographer Laurie Simmons. That possessive adjective acts as a kind of preemptive retort to any accusations of indulgence or inconsequentiality. A seemingly self-reflexive musing on the difficulties and irregular rewards of creating art later in life, Simmons’ petite, personal film makes no claim to a bigger picture: Starring Simmons herself as a solitary New York artist opening her creative process to others over the course of one tranquil rural summer, its wistful, whimsical neuroses aren’t especially universal ones. Short, sour-sweet and content to leave ideas and characters trailing in the summer breeze, “My Art” has evidently been made strictly on Simmons’ terms, however wafty those may be.
Viewers will know within minutes if they’re on the film’s very particular, precious wavelength. After a bright, droll credit sequence that follows 65-year-old artist and Yale lecturer Ellie (Simmons) through a varied series of exhibits — some vibrant, some vapid, though no judgment is passed — at the Whitney Museum, the film’s gaze turns swiftly inward. Ellie meets a former student (Simmons’ daughter Lena Dunham, in a shuffling cameo) and they wearily share their respective artistic plans for the summer, from rural creative retreats to Venice Biennale preparations. “I hope it’s not so overwhelming for you,” Ellie says to the younger woman, and perhaps there’s a streak of irony in the film’s seemingly earnest allusion to such first-world stresses. Perhaps not.
Either way, mellow respite awaits. Ellie, long-divorced and childless, escapes the city and decamps to a lush, plush patch of verdant upstate countryside, having arranged to house-sit for a wealthy friend with only her ailing, ageing and thoroughly winning wire fox terrier Bing for company. The vast, airy manse (actually Simmons’ real-life Connecticut abode) and adjoining barn provides an ideal space for Ellie to break a lengthy artistic hiatus and develop a new video project — a series of classic film reenactments, ranging in inspiration from “Morocco” to “The Misfits” to “A Clockwork Orange,” with no clear thematic throughline beyond the artist’s affection for the originals.
But no woman is an island, and so her idiosyncratic project only really snaps to life when collaborators enter the frame, to her surprise and theirs: Frank (Robert Clohessy), the house’s widowed gardener and a former actor, his younger, gawkier colleague Tom (filmmaker Josh Safdie) and flannelly lawyer John (John Rothman), a would-be suitor awkwardly arranged by one of her students. Their various dress-up exercises — seemingly echoing the work of Cindy Sherman with fewer psychosexual hangups — give the film its blithest moments, but Simmons’ slender script falters when it comes even to quick-sketching the relations between these variously disconsolate souls.
Only a low-flame romantic flicker between Ellie and Frank separates itself from the narrative stasis, thanks in part to Clohessy’s fine, quietly aching portrayal of scabbed-over grief. Some peripheral characters are rendered in vaguest watercolor, others in opposingly broad strokes, giving such tony players as Blair Brown and Barbara Sukowa mere crayon shavings to work with. Most disappointingly, Parker Posey’s thankless, two-scene cameo as Tom’s older, hectoring wife makes little sense as portraiture, and scarcely contributes to the porous narrative. Simmons, who played a refracted version of herself in Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture,” hasn’t quite her daughter’s eye and ear for human behavioral minutiae; the very artlessness of “My Art” is what sometimes makes it endearing, but its storytelling could use a few more foundational lines.
What early inklings of art-world satire we detect in “My Art’s” deadpan study of the New York scene prove to be red herrings: This is the work of an artist sincerely devoted to her creative environment, even (or perhaps especially) when it leads her down the odd dead end. Are Ellie’s videos, presented by cinematographer Tom Richmond in a mix of flattening digital pastels and soft-contrast monochrome, an inspired breakthrough or just more artistic stalling? The film’s view, to its credit, isn’t easy to determine. If watching Ellie — or Simmons, though any allusions to autobiography can only be guessed at — navigate her own imagination offers fewer revelations to the viewer than it does the creator, don’t say the title didn’t warn you.