Director: Paul Harrill
Stars: Ashley Shelton, Bryce Johnson
4 (out of 5) Globes
Todd Haynes has said that in the middle of “Safe” Julianne Moore’s diseased Stepford Wife gets a brief taste of freedom before she submits herself into another, different kind of prison. Margaret (Ashley Shelton), the hero of the indie “Something, Anything,” isn’t unlike Moore’s zombie; she too has a voice just a couple notches shy of broken, plus an eternally vague smile that belies any semblance of an inner life. But when she gets her chance to break free, Margaret really does go free — so free that her freedom can feel dangerous and scary, as though she could at any minute succumb to untoward forces or, perhaps worse, roam forever, never finding a new structure.
“Something, Anything” has nothing like the sinister undertones of “Safe,” but it shares some of its most important traits. It too is using the language of old women’s pictures in order to both subvert and relish in them; at times it resembles a decidedly less insistent Douglas Sirk melodrama, one that trades soft hues and quiet for loud colors and louder music. And Margaret, like Moore’s homemaker, is under the assumption that she is following a tried-and-true lifepath. She’s in a connect-the-dots relationship with stable Mark (Bruce Johnson), and filmmaker Paul Harrill rushes them from engagement to wedding to pregnancy, right to the sudden miscarriage that will completely obliterate the path the film was clearly not on to begin with.
What follows is, on one level, another swipe at a cookie cutter suburbia that never seems to die, no matter how many films like “Something, Anything” come along to give it a good stabbing. Mark is a stereotype: casually callous and passive-aggressive bordering on actual-aggressive, crowing when she’s knocked up that “We can’t just stay home for nine months” and offering robotic non-assurances when she sinks into a deep depression. He enters the picture in order to exit it, a bro who feels entitled to be a goodly wife.
On another, more productive level, it’s an ambivalently presented portrait of someone not so much finding herself but subtracting everything from her life to see what she has left.As delicately played by Shelton, Margaret’s self-actualization is one done in major, daring moves: She takes a break from her marriage that seems permanent; she quits her job; she chucks her cellphone for that horrible beast, the landline; and when she stumbles upon a book about monks, she starts relinquishing all her possessions. But her face changes in the babiest of baby steps. If anything she goes more internal. Her decisions utterly avoid you-go-girl positivism to the point that she can come off distant and stubborn. You can trace hidden fear on her face, as though she's afraid of a less clear future, but also sense someone who secretly enjoys closing down her life, even if that leaves loved ones in her wake.
It's not clear how "Something, Anything" itself will end up. Even when she happens upon Tim (Linds Edwards), an old high school friend and now a monk, the specter of a third act relationship quickly dissipates as all else has in her new, open, unsure life. As a writer and director, Harrill is less brave than his protagonist; at times his feature debut can feel as programmatic as the life she’s ditched, hitting on self-help plot beats plus subversions of indie cliches that are themselves cliches. Even the way it avoids closure is in itself a cliche, though Harrill’s real gift is in finding a style that’s as patient and gentle and unhurried as Margaret and the actress playing her. Then again, Harrill doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel; he just needs to honor and respect a character and capture the stubborn and scary thrills that comes with embracing alternative living.
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