Producers: Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub, Gabrielle Nadig, Jenny Slate, Fabian Gasmia and Ruben Thorkildsen Director: David Wnendt Screenplay: Rebecca Dinerstein Knight Cast: Jenny Slate, Alex Sharp, Fridtjov Såheim, David Paymer, Zach Galifianakis, Gillian Anderson, Jessica Hecht and Elise Kibler Distributor: Quiver Distribution
Since the debut of David Wnendt’s film at the Sundance Festival last year, nearly thirty minutes have been cut from the adaptation Rebecca Dinerstein Knight scripted from her own 2015 novel. That probably explains its occasional choppiness, the uneasy feeling that certain necessary narrative elements are lacking. On the other hand, what’s left, while not awful, isn’t sufficiently engaging to make you want more.
The title refers to the reality at the Lofoten Islands in the extreme northwest of Norway, where the sun never quite sets. It’s there that Frances (Jenny Slate), a struggling New York painter, goes on a journey of self-discovery.
An opening prologue shows us why. A panel of critics has just dismissed her latest work, and she’s broken up with her boyfriend. At home—a cramped apartment—she faces familial crisis. Her parents, Levi (David Paymer) and Mirela (Jessica Hecht) are also artists—he’s a perpetually ranting illustrator reduced to doing grunt-work avian drawings, while her medium of choice is fabric—but neither is doing very well. And when her younger sister Gaby (Elise Kibler) announces her engagement to a man Levi inexplicably loathes, he not only screams his objections but abruptly announces that he and Mirela are separating.
So Frances begs for a residency as far away from the Big Apple as possible, and secures the gig in Norway assisting gruff Nils (Fridtjov Såheim), who’s painting a barn in various shades of yellow in hopes of securing it recognition as a tourist destination. (He’s carefully color-coded the job for her, leading Frances to observe that it’s the equivalent of painting-by-numbers.) It’s not the most challenging—or fulfilling—assignment, but the gorgeous surroundings (beautifully shot by cinematographer Martin Ahlgren) go far to make it tolerable, though the pesky goats that intrude upon her cramped little trailer can be a nuisance.
As the story rambles on, oddities abound. Nearby Frances encounters a bevy of Viking cos-players headed by a burly expatriate from Cincinnati named Haldor (Zach Galifianakis), who takes his role as a Hagar the Horrible type very seriously indeed. Frances is fascinated by their commitment, and also by the arrival of another American seeking their help—Yasha (Alex Sharp), a shy young man from Brooklyn who’s brought the body of his beloved father, a Russian immigrant with whom he worked in the family bakery, for a Viking funeral (his dad always wanted to visit northern Norway, it seems, and this is his last chance).
Two things follow. One is the unexpected arrival of Olyana (Gillian Anderson), Yasha’s mother, who was supposed to join him and his father in New York years ago but never came. She’s presented as one of those extravagantly eccentric Russian women familiar from sitcoms, but apart from a contribution to the funeral service, Anderson is given little to do. (Neither, actually, is Galifianakis—a blessing, considering his lumpy performance—which suggests that much of their footage was left in the editing room.)
More significant is a romance that develops between Frances and Yasha, ending in their consummating the relationship in the barn just as—you guessed it—Nils brings a couple of assessors into the place to determine its suitability as a designated tourism site. This would seem an important plot turn, but it’s squandered by the complete lack of chemistry between Slate and sheepish Sharp, who, on the evidence of his work here and in last year’s gender-reversal remake of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” called “The Hustle,” is not the sort of dreamily attractive young actor Hollywood is always yearning for.
Do not feel too sorry for Frances, however; her time in the Lofotens has one very beneficial result: she finds a subject for the canvases she does on her off-time that leads her critics back in New York to celebrate her new style. Thus the film can close with a bookend that brings it full circle.
“The Sunlit Night” is rather a mess, jumping from one plot thread to another spasmodically and shifting tones at the drop of a hat; at one point, for example, Levi is brought back to deliver a toast at Gaby’s wedding that makes the guests cringe (and us with them), but Paymer delivers it with a degree of intensity that suggests he considers it Oscar-worthy. And like so many independent pictures, it seems dedicated to the proposition that a strong dose of quirkiness and whimsy will solve any cinematic rough-spot.
Yet overall it’s not an unpleasant experience, largely due to Slate’s cheeky persona and the lovely vistas Ahlgren captures so nicely. Most of the other craft contributions are less impressive—the production design by Kristine Wilhelmsen and Katie Hickman is just okay, and Enis Rotthoff’s score verges on overbearingly jolly. As for the editing of Andreas Wodraschke, who can tell where his work left off and other hands intervened, given the extensive post-Sundance cutting?
The resulting brevity, at least, makes the movie easy to endure if not to embrace.