There’s an admirable ambition to Jack Begert’s directorial debut, Little Death. The film, which premiered at Sundance, announces its intentions with an early scene of communal complaint. At dinner, Martin Solomon (David Schwimmer), a TV writer with directorial aspirations, laments the state of his industry. In addition to their disdain for lazy and too-sensitive audiences, he and his friend, Augustus (Fred Melamed), discuss the limitations of narrative filmmaking. Augustus argues that television allows writers to explore the interiority of multiple characters, whereas films can only really sustain one point of view.
With Little Death, Begert tries to prove Augustus wrong. The director, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Dani Goffstein, constructs a story plunging viewers into the ravaged emotional lives of different characters. It tries to stretch the bounds of the narrative form, to upend convention and encourage us to rethink our relationship to storytelling. It aims to do all this with style — Begert’s direction is slick and capable — and absorbing performances from most of the cast. But Little Death can’t fulfill the ambitions of its intellectual exercise, resulting in a bifurcated film that doesn’t find its footing until the end.
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The film starts off in the highest gear. A voiceover narration coupled with trippy animation considers life’s existential questions and concludes that modern-day living is a trap of prescription drugs and distractions. When the monologue ends, it’s revealed to be a screenplay in progress by Martin, a frustrated creative. After a successful career as a TV writer for a sitcom called The Switch Up, Martin wants to write and, preferably, direct a movie — a depressing project about death, middle-age and thwarted ambition. The first half of Little Death roots itself in Martin’s point of view and experiments with different animation techniques to relay the rhythm of his neurotic mind.
Martin, we quickly learn, is an asshole — a melancholic writer wrestling with the deadly combination of inferiority and God complexes. When not complaining about his unrecognized genius, Martin carps about his wife (Jena Malone). In a recurring gag, he stares at the mole on her neck and comments on her obsession with losing weight. Schwimmer commits to his portrayal of this man with an abhorrent personality, nailing the character’s pathetic anxiety and teasing some complexity. But Martin is little more than a cypher for an uninspired kind of white male rage.
When Martin’s agents inform him that funding for his project depends on making the protagonist a woman, the writer becomes catatonic. “No one wants to watch a white guy with problems,” they tell him. “Not with this climate.” So the writer tries to imagine his auto-fictional work from a female perspective, and Little Death dials up the weirdness: As Martin talks to his friends David (Seth Green) and Jayson (Ben Feldman) about the anonymous producer’s stipulations, his character, also known as Martin 2.0, is now all of a sudden played by Gaby Hoffmann.
The somewhat trying exercise finally ends when Martin meets a woman (Angela Sarafyan) while picking up a prescription at the pharmacy. He spots her entering the record store across the street and follows her. He’s seen the svelte brunette with piercing eyes in his dreams, and is convinced that she is some mystic figure sent to coddle his bruised ego and be the star of his project.
Just as Little Death has gotten us to accept our fate with Martin, a new twist shifts our perspective. Now we’re with Karla (Talia Ryder) and AJ (Dominic Fike), two addicts who spend a whirlwind evening trying to find a stolen backpack. Gone are the quirky animations, the meta-commentary and existential monologues. Goffstein and Begert settle into the tempo of a conventional narrative, and ironically it’s here that they get closest to their goals. In Karla and AJ, the director and screenwriter offer characters with enough depth to emotionally engage us and enough mystery to sustain our interest. With fewer gimmicks and more character building, this section of Little Death is the most fully realized.
Ryder, who has consistently proven her ability to carry a film with Never Rarely Sometimes Always and The Sweet East, predictably shines here. Her performance adds a hopeful edge to Karla, turning the character into something more than just a college dropout with addiction issues. Ryder sneaks in touches of optimism — like when she’s flirting with a guy she likes (played by Odd Future’s Travis Bennett) — that show some part of her maintains a will to live. Fike, whose role in Euphoria was flattened into a meme, is similarly strong. In AJ, we sense a kindness and a desperation to prove himself. Fike energizes the character with glimpses of protectiveness for Karla. With this foundation, a critical scene in which Karla and AJ fight lands with real emotional impact.
As the two friends adventure through Los Angeles, Little Death sheds some of its intellectual posturing for more grounded storytelling. The film becomes more confident and funnier, and more naturally gestures at the themes it announced with such forceful intention at the beginning. We start to invest not just in Karla and AJ’s experiences, but in all the people they meet along the way.
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