Among the oldest stories in the romantic comedy playbook is that of the bright, brashly independent heroine who claims she doesn’t need a man, only for the perfect one to waltz into her life at that very moment. The genre exists to defeat singledom: A romcom without a life-changing romance, after all, is just a com.
“Spinster,” while unassuming in most formal respects, rather admirably challenges this formula. A romantic comedy that sympathetically shares its unattached female protagonist’s conflicting impulses to couple up or to stand her single ground, Andrea Dorfman’s thoughtful little film arrives at a compromise that feels honest and hard-won — helped along by the infectious, defiantly offbeat presence of erstwhile “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” star Chelsea Peretti. The result is less preoccupied with happy-ever-after than happy-right-now, and it proves a satisfying objective.
“I think society has progressed to the point where we can forget the word ‘spinster,'” a married friend (Susan Kent) says to Gaby (Peretti) near the beginning of the film, right after Gaby has self-pityingly directed the word at herself. She’s only half-right. The quaint word itself may have fallen out of favor, but not the stigma attached to it: Past a certain age, single women are still regarded with a mixture of condescension and suspicion in mainstream society, all while their male counterparts are granted a degree of roguish allure well into middle age.
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Suddenly single on her 39th birthday — following an abrupt breakup with an ill-matched boyfriend she never liked all that much to begin with — Gaby finds she can scarcely complete a social exchange without her relationship status, or lack thereof, coming up in conversation. Nominally well-meaning women quiz her about her desire to have children, know-it-all men accuse her of selfishness in her solitude, and prospective clients for her catering business demand her interest in their lavish wedding arrangements. “People are such d—s to single women,” she sighs: Jennifer Deyell’s script trades in such plain but essentially true observations.
To begin with, Gaby isn’t that sold on the single life herself, but the more she finds herself defending it from people who shouldn’t care one way or the other, the more assured and fulfilled she becomes in it. “Working on myself” may be largely used as a hackneyed breakup excuse, but Gaby devotes the last year of her thirties to the idea, chasing long-deferred professional dreams and finding unexpected pockets of companionship along the way: with her new neighbor Callie (Kate Lynch), an older single woman with no regrets about her choice; with her shy 10-year-old niece Adele (Nadia Tonen), in whom she inspires new assertiveness; with the adorable rescue collie she welcomes into her home. There’s the odd cute guy along the way, too, but it’s all part of the mix: Shrugging off a speckled romantic history, Gaby realizes that a relationship needn’t be forever to be worthwhile.
As life lessons go, these aren’t revolutionary or impossibly profound. Yet “Spinster” is disarming in the way it consistently put its protagonist first, particularly in the context of a genre that often struggles to reconcile old-school romanticism with populist female empowerment. (Witness the bewilderingly mixed messages of Amy Schumer and Judd Apatow’s “Trainwreck,” for example, in which a raucous, sex-positive misfit finally gets the guy by changing everything about her life.)
The film’s unfussed, unfussy spirit is well-suited to the straight-talking comic stylings of Peretti, here dialing down the superhuman spaciness of her performance as Gina Linetti in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” but retaining her distinctively languid comic timing and acrid, drawling delivery. Many a gifted comedian has been painted into a corner by a hyper-wacky fan-favorite sitcom character: Peretti’s dry but winning work here suggests she may have left the NBC hit at the right time.
One does occasionally wish the filmmaking in “Spinster” were as singular as its star or as crisp as its defining character arc. Save for one wittily nightmarish composition, in which DP Stéphanie Weber Biron’s low-angle camera allows a swelling camping mattress to swamp Gaby’s comparatively deflated figure in the frame, the film is shot and cut with bright, clean, get-the-job-done proficiency, while Daniel Ledwell’s score strays into whimsy that doesn’t especially suit these straight-talking proceedings. What’s most conventional about Dorfman’s film does, however, serve to highlight what’s quietly, breezily subversive about it: “Spinster” won’t change the world, but like its put-upon title character, it won’t change itself for the world either.