While Seattle-based filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s been a regular presence at Sundance with films like “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” and “Touchy Feely,” “Laggies” is both a welcome return and an intriguing departure. As Shelton herself noted at the film’s Eccles premiere, it’s the first time in her career she’s worked from a script by another person, but that screenwriter Andrea Siegel’s work felt like a fit. And the change does Shelton good; funny, human, clean and still messy, “Laggies” is the indie-film equivalent of a bumblebee – it shouldn’t be able to fly and maneuver, but it does and does so superbly.
Megan (Kiera Knightley) has a case of arrested development; she’s been with her boyfriend (Mark Webber) for 10 years, all the way back to high school; she went to grad school for an advanced counselling degree, but doesn’t use it; she’s coddled and spoiled by her CPA dad (Jeff Garlin). But even the most stable orbit around unchanging points can be knocked off-course by impact, and when Megan sees someone she loves behaving badly at her friend’s wedding, it’s followed by her boyfriend proposing to her, unexpectedly and with wretched timing; she flees into the night ostensibly to prepare the bridal suite and instead winding up hanging out with a group of teens at the invitation of Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) a smart, composed kid at the edge of her peer group.
And so a friendship is made, and then a friendship is exploited; after Megan does Annika a solid, Megan asks if she can hide out and hole up at Annika’s home for a few days while her now-fiancée thinks she’s at a remote self-help conference on an island. Annika thinks it’s an amazing idea; her dad Craig (Sam Rockwell), when he gets the gist of events, is less enthused. On a performance level, “Laggies” is exemplary; Rockwell tones down his more Rockwell-like (for lack of a better phrase) notes and still makes Craig a smart, fun guy struggling to raise his daughter properly. Knightley gets to be human here in a way she’s rarely allowed to, capturing all of Megan’s flaws and dead-stop decade of inertia while still conveying the changes and realizations and errors that are going to force her to make changes. And Moretz has, simply, never been better on-screen, or in a better-written role. (True, we are talking about an actress who has been in “Kick-Ass,” “Kick-Ass 2,” “Carrie” and “Hick,” so the dimness of that background cannot help but make her efforts here shine brighter; at the same time, her work here is a quantum leap above anything she’d done before.)
Shelton’s behind-the-scenes team is led by two longtime collaborators, cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke and editor Nat Sanders; the film’s look and feel are slicker and shinier than in their previous efforts with Shelton, but there’s still plenty of real, tough and ugly moments in the film as Megan winds up more and more entrenched in Annika and Craig’s lives in the effort to avoid going back to everything waiting for her. And again, there’s a lot in “Laggies” that shouldn’t work, or hasn’t worked in other films, but Shelton somehow manages it. Early on, Craig interrogates Megan about what exactly, a fully-grown woman is doing hanging out with his teen daughter: “It’s weird, right?” And yes, it is weird, and yet Shelton is able to move the film forward in spite of our and the character’s misgivings. The film’s title comes from a throwaway insult aimed at late friends late in the film, but it sums up the feeling that hangs over Megan: Always being late, being in the past, mired in yesterday and slowed by its suction.
There’s also a great supporting cast – not just Weber and Garlin but also Elle Kemper as Knightley’s jovial, judge-y pal and Kaitlyn Dever as Annika’s brazen bestie Misty. Asked what her spirit animal is, Dever’s delivery of Siegel’s line is utterly perfect, making for a moment that’s not just funny but also telling. There have been, of course, a plethora of films about the stuck, the slack and the stalled, but there’s still a spectrum of quality any seemingly-familiar plot or pitch can then be placed in, and “Laggies” is a high-quality example of that subset – full of flawed, real people and dialogue that both sparkles with a well-polished sheen and still has the rough edges of life. Superbly written, handsomely made and full of terrific performances, “Laggies” is Shelton’s best film to date; if Knightley and Moretz’s name recognition translates to Shelton’s skill finally being recognized by a larger audience, I can’t wait to see her next step forward.