It’s no secret that the film industry is dominated by men. Even the indie game mostly touts male-led films by male directors. As a result, there are a lot of slice-of-life films out there that bravely explore what a bummer it is to be a white dude with depression. While I adore some of those movies, they can be petri dishes for poorly-written women, as the aforementioned dudes usually relearn the value of life from Manic Pixie Dream Girls. So dubbed by Nathan Rabin of The AV Club, these women are more like sexy children. Cast to do little more than reignite the male protagonist’s sense of wonder, they make up for their lack of backstory with feminine wiles.
Though recently identified, these big-eyed ingenues have flitted through indie cinema for decades. And while some directors have challenged the trope, there are very few female perspectives on it. Enter “Master of None” star Noël Wells and her directorial debut “Mr. Roosevelt.” This offbeat, engrossing film explores what happens when a supposed Manic Pixie Dream Girl is actually the one finding herself.
“Mr. Roosevelt” centers on Emily Martin (Noël Wells), a creative postgrad drowning in her own self-doubt. She wants to be a comedian, and she’s got the chops — in the film’s opening scene, Wells shows off an impressive Holly Hunter impression — but she can’t seem to charm any casting directors. As she half-asses an editing job and sleeps with insufferable comedy bros, it’s clear Emily feels unfulfilled. She is a modest YouTube success, with a viral video that’s racked up millions of views, but she sees herself as decidedly unsuccessful. And that feeling only becomes more pronounced after an impromptu visit to her former home.
Emily is called back to Austin when her cat, the titular Mr. Roosevelt, falls ill and dies. She plans to stay with her ex, Eric (Nick Thune), while awaiting Mr. Roosevelt’s ashes, but is disturbed to find he has a live-in girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower). Celeste, who Emily describes as “a Pinterest board come to life,” is poised and pretty. She’s also interloping on Emily’s entire life. Celeste assumed ownership of Mr. Roosevelt after Emily left Eric, and has moved into the house Emily and Eric used to share. Emily is immediately threatened — not because she has a right to be, as the woman who dumped Eric over the phone, but because Celeste represents everything she lacks.
To avoid being in her former house, Emily takes up with Jen (Daniella Pineda), a gorgeous waitress-slash-drummer with a party girl vibe. She is perhaps the real MPDG of the film, and not just because she has romantic chemistry with the protagonist. Jen has a zest for life and sexy self-confidence that Emily longs to emulate, and, in a sequence midway through the film involving topless sunbathing and cell phone destruction, she does. Letting loose has its consequences, though, and Emily find herself coming up short against Celeste yet again.
Things come to a head when Celeste throws a burial brunch for Mr. Roosevelt. A drunk Emily lets her insecurity get the best of her and ends up making some cringeworthy decisions (while wearing a great romper). “You’re a good person with really bad execution,” Jen reassures her in the aftermath. The film wraps up neatly as our protagonist returns to LA, humbled and hopeful. Her future is still uncertain, but at least she’s done being an asshole.
Much like Wells herself, the film — shot in 35mm and focused on Austin — has a hipster vibe that borders on twee. Wells owns that as a director, though, while pushing back against her own archetype. After a guy calls her “quirky,” Emily points out that that word “recognizes [a girl’s] uniqueness but at the same time devalues her intelligence.” Wells, perhaps best known for playing the unpredictable, delightful Rachel in “Master of None,” is clearly no stranger to the adjective. And while this film is undeniably eccentric, it’s also got heart and humor, with immortal one-liners (“It’s a bralette, it’s like a training bra for adults”) and an interesting take on the stuck-in-life narrative.
“Mr. Roosevelt” isn’t perfect. Celeste is fairly one-dimensional, and the climactic brunch scene fails to find its comedic or dramatic rhythm. But like its protagonist, “Mr. Roosevelt” makes up for its imperfections with originality and endearment. Triple-threat Wells deserves a crack at a second feature, not just to learn from her mistakes in “Mr. Roosevelt,” but to build on its multitudinous strengths as well. This film might not blow you away, but it is unique, and it will make you laugh. And ultimately, that’s all you really need from an indie comedy. [B]