There’s no virtue in the current critical trend of dismissing out of hand stories about the relatively privileged and naive. But when a film endeavors to explore the self-inflicted drama of the modestly comfortable, it should more insight than director Ry Russo-Young (who co-wrote the film with Lena Dunham) offers in Nobody Walks. Initially an attempt to sketch the emotional development of a young artist, the film instead becomes merely an infidelity procedural involving characters as mundane as they are predictable.
Martine (Olivia Thirlby) flies from New York to Los Angeles to begin sound mixing and editing for a gallery exhibition video she’s trying to complete. The video itself is mostly close-up shots of ants at their business, because at film school we learned about symbolism. Helping Martine with her video is Peter (John Krasinski), a successful Foley artist and sound engineer who has recently landed a studio film. His wife Julie (Rosemarie Dewitt) is friends with Martine’s mom, and is also the one who is mostly responsible for putting her insecure husband and a strange young woman in a soundproof room together. Julie is also a therapist; we see her at work with only one client, a sleazy, humble-bragging screenwriter (Peter Kirk) who spends the entirety of his time on screen trying to sleep with his therapist. From an earlier marriage, Julie has a daughter, Kolt (India Ennenga), whose father is a rockstar named Leroy (Dylan McDermott). The movie breaks down like this: Kolt’s sexuality is inchoate, new, and confusing to her; Martine’s is active, manipulative, and confusing to her; Julie’s is mature, controlled, and confusing to her.
In the film’s opening, Martine gets a ride from LAX to Silver Lake from a guy she met and made out with on the flight. Once at Peter and Julie’s place, she’s introduced to the family and to Peter’s assistant, David (Rhys Wakefield), who Martine soon after accompanies to a gallery opening and then, after announcing that doing so is against her better judgment, hooks up with. Not much later, Martine and Peter have sex in his in-house studio. After a disastrous session with two voice-over actors, it becomes clear that Martine’s approach to her project is unfocused and indecisive; as Peter’s covetousness grows, so does Martine’s inability to finish her work. Peter eventually susses out that Martine prefers David, and his jealousy — along with Julie’s growing suspicion, complete with “don’t make a fool out of me” speech — demands that Martine leave LA as soon as possible. Which she does. We watch her cab head down the highway, intercut with grainy monochrome shots of ants overrunning a bottle cap.
There’s plenty to explore within the dynamics of whatever we choose to call this era of enlightened sexuality, but Nobody Walks fails to bring anything interesting to the conversation. Early in the film, Julie exhorts Martine to explore her world before settling down — to be reckless, and young, like she had been. Julie, after all, endured a rocky, failed marriage with a rock star before finding her path and the person with whom she was right to share it. But when Martine does follow her impulses, Julie discovers that jealousy and betrayal aren’t easily overlooked. This would be a great theme to go deeper into, but the only counterpoint we see is Julie’s ability to let her own opportunity for infidelity pass; even with revenge as a motivator, she chooses not to cave to some primal urge. Kolt, on the other hand, has her common emotional struggle radically upended: unable to be with the boy she’s attracted to (David), incapable of forcing herself to be attracted to the peer the world thinks she ought to date (Avi, played by Sam Lerner), she ultimately finds herself in a horrifying scenario wherein her middle-aged Italian tutor accuses her of leading him on. After the tutor loses his temper and calls his young charge a whore, Martine comes to the rescue, chasing the tutor from the house. It’s meant as a protective moment, one in which we can see Martine and Kolt as simply two people at very different points along the same developmental arc. Unfortunately, the scene is overshadowed by the fact that it comes totally from left field, with nothing anticipating the tutor’s perversity (or even really justifying his presence in the film; he’s a huge device introduced only to allow for this moment).
Dunham’s best-known work (HBO’s Girls and her debut film Tiny Furniture has been controversial (not necessarily justifiably) for its infatuation with upper-middle-class creatives who actively choose to fuck up their lives. With Nobody Walks, she and Russo-Young leave even their fans with little to cling to in order to champion their work. The characters behave in ways as obvious as they are foolish; nothing of the experience and intelligence their lives should come with is on display. Other projects (including Dunham’s and Russo-Young’s previous offerings) approach our clumsy sexual and emotional development with the complexity and insight these topics deserve. But Nobody Walks ignores that which makes our cruelty to one another interesting, instead only offering characters as boring as their impulses.