The new comedy by Sook-Yin Lee
Though likely still best known around the globe thanks to her starring role in Shortbus, here in Canada writer-director Sook-Yin Lee is something of a renaissance woman. Stepping in to the public eye as a music video VJ she quickly branched out into radio, print, visual art and virtually every other medium you could care to name, proving to be a unique and vital voice in all of them. While she’d worked in film before it wasn’t until last year that Lee attracted widespread attention as a writer and director of film, directing what – to my mind, at least – is far and away the best segment of the Toronto Stories anthology and she returns to the screen now with her debut feature, Year of The Carnivore.
Sammy Smalls has a problem. Or, really, if we’re being honest, she has several. First, she’s named Sammy Smalls. Second, she walks with a limp and is plagued with body-image issues. And third, she is wildly inexperienced with sex – a point that seems to be preventing her friendship with the boy she not-so-secretly longs for from going any further. Even the one thing that she truly enjoys – her job as a store detective at a small supermarket, where she gets to dress up and creep around as a variety of strange characters – is marred by her boss’ unfortunate tendency to take anyone she catches into the back room and administer a beating.
After a disastrous birthday, Sammy finally finds the courage to make her play for Eugene, the sensitive indie musician who busks with a ukelele outside her store. But Eugene makes it very clear that he’s not interested in love, not interested in a girlfriend, not interested in ever again attempting sex with Sammy. And so she does the only thing she can do: she decides to acquire as much sexual experience as she can, get better at it, and then prove to Eugene the error of his ways.
Like Me And You And Everyone We Know director Miranda July, Sook-Yin Lee has a deep love for the odd and the fringe, the sensitive souls who live on the outskirts of regular society. Additionally, Lee also refuses to play her characters as simple types or cartoons meant for laughs. No, they mean too much to her to treat that way - she strives to give them deeper meaning, a task at which she succeeds admirably. Slightly less successful are her shifts in tone, from quirky to serious. At times it feels as though there are two complementary but slightly different films contained within Year of the Carnivore, each of them struggling for dominance.
The heart and soul of Carnivore is Sammy herself, a role beautifully brought to life by Cristin Milioti, taking the lead in just her second film role. In lesser hands, Sammy would become precisely the sort of caricature that Lee so clearly wants to avoid but with Milioti she springs to absolute, full blooded life. Though it shows some of the growing pains of a director moving from shorts to features for the first time, Year of the Carnivore is nonetheless possessed of a remarkably clear voice and distinct vision, one that will surely become sharper as Lee continues through her career. May it be a long one.
– Todd Brown, Twitch