Sometimes weird doesn’t mean quirky or original or intriguing or consistently interesting. Sometimes weird mostly just means … weird for its own sake, and we’re mired in a self-conscious, aggressively indie film that’s neither as funny nor as emotionally resonant as it wants to be — and when that happens, we get a movie such as “The Sunlit Night.”
This is an artist’s coming-of-age story featuring a wonderful actress who’s unfortunately not right for the role; a shambling screenplay that has characters wandering in and out of the story as if in search of their own movie, and not one but two of the most off-putting patriarchal figures in recent memory.
“The Sunlit Night” opens in New York City, with Jenny Slate’s struggling artist Frances having a very bad day, from getting turned down for a coveted internship to being dumped by her insensitive boyfriend to returning home to the cramped apartment where her parents (David Paymer and Jessica Hecht) have lived forever, only to be told her folks are splitting up and her father will be living in Frances’ tiny attic space/studio, which leads to a terribly unfunny sequence in which Dad blows up an air mattress while Frances tries to paint. (David Paymer is usually a very welcome presence as a character actor, but he delivers a shrill performance as a deeply unlikable and bitter man who exudes toxicity.)
Desperate for a life change, Frances accepts a job in Norway’s Lofoten Islands, in the Arctic Circle, as an assistant to a temperamental artist named Nils (Fridtjob Saheim), who is at work on a project in which he’s painting the interior and exterior of a large barn in shades of yellow. Cue the admittedly gorgeous cinematography, and the easy jokes about Viking cosplay and eccentric locals. Nils is a misanthropic louse who growls at Frances while pounding down oversized cans of beer and reminding her she’s not here to learn, she’s here to work a grueling schedule. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a putatively colorful cast of supporting players, including Yasha (Alex Sharp), a Brooklyn baker who has come all this way to give his father a Viking funeral, even though his father has never been to Norway; Yasha’s estranged Russian mother, played for some reason by Gillian Anderson, who employs an accent that makes her sound like Natasha from “The Bullwinkle Show,” and the curator of the local Viking museum, played by Zach Galifianakis, who looks fidgety and distracted throughout the proceedings.
Jenny Slate is a terrific and versatile presence who can hit so many different notes as an actress, and she gives her all to this role, but even with her naturally young-sounding voice, at 38 she comes across as too experienced, too self-possessed, too impressive to play someone so green and naïve and impressionable. We don’t believe she’d take so much stuff from her father or from Nils, we don’t believe she’d be so easily swept up by the bland Yasha, and we don’t believe she’d be so lonely she’d take in a goat as her best friend for a while, and please don’t ask, it’s not worth the explanation.