LAFF 2010 Review: THE NEW YEAR
Writers: Brett Haley, Elizabeth Kennedy
Director: Brett Haley
Cast: Trieste Kelly Dunn, Ryan Hunter, Kevin Wheatley, Linda Lee McBride, Marc Petersen, Lance Brannon
I think every person has the fantasy of running into former high school classmates and being wildly successful (while they are not) and you get to watch them marvel at all you have accomplished since graduation day. This is not that story. This is the story of what happens when everyone you graduated with thinks you will become wildly successful, but due to a few unexpected life curveballs, you end up living back in your hometown, in your parents' house, working at a bowling alley. Bleak, right? Maybe not…
Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn) is a pretty girl - she's happy, fun, has a good sense of humor, and is all-in-all likable. So what happened to cause almost-valedictorian (as pointed out by one of those cliché still-mean girls from her high school class) Sunny to move back to Pensacola and spend her days disinfecting bowling shoes? Her dad was diagnosed with cancer and her mom moved out, so Sunny made the choice to leave college and move home to be with her father. But things back in Pensacola are not all bad. Sunny has a lovable boyfriend Neal (Kevin Wheatley), her best friend Amy (Linda Lee McBride), a good friend in her co-worker Glen (Lance Brannon), and her dad (Marc Petersen) seems to be on the mend.
The film takes place over Christmas break, the time when all those former classmates come home for the holidays. Sunny ends up running into her high school “rival," Isaac (Ryan Hunter), while out one night and simply seeing him seems to light a fire inside Sunny we had not seen up until that point. I loved that Isaac was not described an unrequited crush, but as someone who was equally as smart and driven as Sunny and was considered competition rather than just a possible love interest. Hearing about how Isaac is now living in New York City and pursuing his dreams, Sunny’s seemingly content life back home in Pensacola starts to seem less and less satisfying. There is no big dramatic moment that brings this idea on, it's just the little change of seeing someone she had once run neck-in-neck with that now seems to be a few paces ahead.
Isaac becomes a bit more than just a motivating factor in Sunny’s life, but even at the clichéd high school friends coming back together party at someone’s parents' beach house, the film resonates with a real sense of heart and honesty. Real life isn’t full of dramatic, perfectly timed scenes and scripted lines. Real life happens in the small moments, the tiny glances, or simply making the decision to wear a dress out rather than a sweater.
Despite everything, at the end of the day, Sunny is a good person who wants to do the right thing and make the people she cares about happy. She is the type of person who would leave college to move home and take care of her ailing father, the type of person who would put on a smile for the children’s bowling league when his heath takes another turn for the worse. And that's not a bad thing, it's just who Sunny is. But the real question turns out to be, who is Sunny to become? Trieste Kelly Dunn turns in an amazing performance in her portrayal of Sunny, which on the surface seems effortless, but reveals itself to be layered and captivating.
I must also highlight the performances of Sunny’s slightly off, but hilarious, co-worker Andy (Justin McElfresh) and Amy’s boyfriend/baby daddy/fiancé, Bobby (David McElfresh). Andy’s lost boy behavior as he shows up for work during Sunny’s shifts just to be in the “space” of the bowling alley was charming in its randomness. Despite being almost a background character, Andy stole his scenes wearing the same sweater every time we see him, until one night gets drunk at a bar and decides he “needs to change” and tries to take his sweater off, but passes out in the process. And I cannot say enough about Bobby, who played a spot-on, seemingly disinterested homeboy saddled with a baby, but turned out to be incredibly sweet to Amy, their child, and their friends. Even if his main form of communication was the phrase “word," he did go so far as to say, “It’s like where we met, yo” when explaining why he proposed to Amy in the middle of a night club.
I found THE NEW YEAR to be charming and full of heart, while still being incredibly self-aware. Brett Haley does an impressive job of making his film seem almost like a documentary rather than a scripted drama, and he noted during the Q&A after the screening that he made a point to try to allow his script and actors to say things “without words” because it is in those moments that you end up getting so much more out of seemingly less. Haley also explained that he did not intend to make a film with a specific message, but wanted to make a character piece, and the film achieves that as it explores Sunny and how slight changes in a person’s life can alter their path completely.
It makes you wonder, where will you be by the end of the year? And what will you want the New Year to hold for you?