She’s pert and beautiful, and stands out from her scuzzy town in the Scottish Highlands like a diamond on a plate of herring. Yet no one would look at Liusaidh, the 24-year-old heroine of “The Party’s Just Beginning,” and call her a princess. Played by Karen Gillan, the Scottish TV–actress–turned–blockbuster–costar (“Avengers: Infinity War,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”), Liusaidh spends each day, sullen and glum, behind the cheese counter of a local supermarket: a go-nowhere job she despises. At night, she drinks like a fish (mostly hard liquor), until she’s trashed enough to go through her ritual of sinful deliverance. She’ll pick up a man, often a stranger — not someone at a bar, but someone right off the street — and have him take her roughly from behind. After that, she’ll scarf several helpings of greasy fries, stuffing them into her mouth as she walks along with greedy abandon. (It’s almost as if her sex itch is an excuse for the chips.)
Liusaidh — pronounced, in case you were wondering, Lucy — is a study in youthful miserablism, and so is “The Party’s Just Beginning,” which Gillan not only stars in; she wrote and directed it too. The movie, a wayward portrait with surrealist touches, is trying for something genuine. Yet despite some good scenes, some tart lines (excessive drinking “makes working in a supermarket easier. Can’t really conjure the energy to resent it through a hangover”), and an atmosphere of saintly desperation that suggests “Trainspotting” redone as a darkened YA fable, the movie is wispy and meandering; it doesn’t gather power as it goes along. We’re shown, in the opening minutes, what’s eating away at Liusaidh: She comes up to a stone bridge that covers the railroad tracks and watches as her best friend, a sweet tormented gay kid named Alistair (Matthew Beard), tips himself off the bridge, an act of suicide that haunts the film.
Except that the sequence is a fantasy. It’s Liusaidh imagining Alistair’s suicide, which makes you think, for a moment, that maybe he’s still alive. (He’s not; we just don’t get to see his death that clearly.) The scenes with Alistair are flashbacks, and they’re the heart of the film. So why is Liusaidh so petulant and dissatisfied in them?
As moviegoers, we have to draw our conclusions from what’s on screen — from what Gillan, as a filmmaker, shows and tells us. And for most of “The Party’s Just Beginning,” what we see, in Liusaidh, is a young woman of caustic wit and surprising talent (she does rapturous riffs on the piano), with pale skin and parted-down-the-middle red hair, who doesn’t like the life she’s leading but never lifts a finger to try and change it. If this movie had been made in the ’90s, it would probably have been hand-cuffed to the gears and pulleys of some “crowd-pleasing” mechanical art-house plot about Liusaidh trying to better her situation by, you know, signing up the local pub (run by Robbie Coltrane! ) to compete in a “Most Pints Sold in a Day in Scotland” contest.
We can all thank the plough and the stars that that era of Miramax-meets-the-U.K. cutesy preciousness is over. But Gillan, in “The Party’s Just Beginning,” doesn’t necessarily come up with a satisfying replacement for it. She has made a downbeat comic drama that’s missing a psychological engine. Liusaidh is haunted by Alistair’s suicide, but her real problem is that she’s trapped in a world where she thinks she’s better than everyone else. If the film viewed this as a problem (the way that, say, “The Edge of Seventeen” did, with Hailee Steinfeld’s too-smart-for-her-own-good high-school outcast), it might have been compelling. But Gillan, as a filmmaker, indulges kneejerk youth superiority. We look at Liusaidh, obsessed with the drabness of her surroundings and with the free-floating indulgence of what is apparently a quarter-life crisis, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that she is, in fact, a princess. She’s a sparkling young woman who has nothing to lose but her chains of self-pity.
The film was shot in Gillan’s hometown of Inverness, where the suicide rate is chilling: One person, on average, takes his or her own life there every 10 days. That’s a stark statistic, but what is it about? Addiction? Economics? The film barely offers a clue (there’s one tossed-off reference to the bad employment situation). But there’s a mildly telling scene in which Liusaidh gets fired by her boss, Peter (Paul Tinto), because she skipped out on work five days in a row. At one point we saw her have sex with him in the bathroom, but now she says: Stop smiling! You’re too happy! Which makes you wonder if Inverness is a community where feeling good is a social crime. But we have to guess, because the film offers little sense of place except visually (sunless air, empty streets).
As it turns out, you don’t have to be an enemy of Liusaidh to set her on edge. She can’t stop haranguing Alistair’s boyfried, Ben (Jamie Quinn), for being a closeted member of the church. We’re supposed to experience this in the category of “enlightened indie film tweaks religion,” but it struck me as hugely intolerant — not of institutional repression, but of poor Ben, who if he isn’t ready to come out about his sexuality has every right to make that choice. Why does Liusaidh insist on making it for him? She shows more sympathy to Dale, a divorced British dad who becomes her lover for a short spell. He’s played by Lee Pace, who makes his presence felt, though what happens between these two is too fragmentary to take hold.
The film’s most compelling character is Alistair, played by Matthew Beard, who looks like Jonathan Richman and conjures a radiant sympathy for this cheeky, drug-addled fellow, who, as it turns out, is on his way to becoming transgender. When Liusaidh catches him with makeup on, he pours out his plans, which he has kept hidden even from Ben. But what he feels about them is also kept hidden from us. I suppose we should respect the fact that the film doesn’t explode into joyful fireworks and provide a false redemption for Alistair. But if you’re going to take on a subject like suicide, as inexplicable as it is, you’ve got to provide an audience with the balm of some kind of understanding. “The Party’s Just Beginning” wallows in a despair it remains naggingly detached from.