The Sunlit Night is an arthouse romance oversaturated with eccentricity. Jenny Slate stars as a struggling Brooklyn art student who takes an apprenticeship in remote Norway. The quirky characters, settings, and stylized asides look fanciful but don’t amount to much. A paper-thin attempt at depth detracts from the fleeting humor. The Sunlit Night is a superficial journey of discovery.
Frances (Jenny Slate) watches as her professors savage her artwork as uninspired. She trudges home to a cramped one bedroom Brooklyn apartment; shared with her bickering parents and sister. It doesn’t help that her parents are successful painters. Or that her sister is in law school and engaged. Frances is desperate to escape her cluttered life. She eagerly accepts a residency with a Norwegian artist (Fridjov Sáheim) in the country’s distant Lofoten Islands.
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Frances’ surly host has one job for his new apprentice. She has to paint the inside of a barn yellow. The barn is part of a local museum’s Viking village recreation. Frances lives in a camper near the water. She can’t sleep because of the constant sun in the Arctic Circle. As the days and nights begin to blur, Frances becomes enamored with another visitor to the village. Yasha (Alex Sharp), a Brooklynite from Brighton beach, has come to Norway to give his deceased father a Viking funeral.
Frances narrates her own story with a nearly constant voice over. The film’s scenes are intercut with slides of famous paintings. Frances compares their characteristics with the odd people she encounters. It’s an artsy approach accompanied by hipster, millennial folk music. German director David Wnendt (Wetlands) clearly focuses on this visual thread. It’s interesting to see, but becomes a crutch for the film’s editing and script issues. The Sunlit Night glosses over meaningful details with theatrics. Every interesting turn is just a new shiny object that’s quickly forgotten. Eye candy is not a replacement for exposition.
Rebecca Dinerstein adapts the screenplay from her novel. This is where the biggest disconnect occurs. Frances is inundated with Norwegian weirdness, but nothing is explored. Zach Galifianakis co-stars as another American who leads the Viking village. He pops up like a gopher for comic relief. Gillian Anderson has a supporting role as Yasha’s absent Russian mother. She vanishes from the film. The romance between Yasha and Frances is hurried. She falls hard for a character that says nothing, and also disappears in the final act. Their interplay as a couple is not substantive. Jenny Slate and Alex Sharp have zero chemistry. Dinerstein’s script feels like it was run through a chainsaw in the editing room. Fans of the book need to lower expectations.
Jenny Slate is likeable as Frances. She brings an effervescent charm to a role that is underwritten. The Sunlit Night squanders her talent and a decent ensemble cast. Its existential search for artistic inspiration leads nowhere. The entire experience becomes vapid. The Sunlit Night is a production of Ape&Bjørn and Detailfilm. It will be available on demand July 17th from Quiver Distribution.
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Film critic, raconteur, praying for dolphins to grow thumbs and do better.