An angry young girl runs away, leaving behind an affluent but troubled home life to throw in her lot with unsupervised older teenagers and low-level drug dealers. Her former caregiver, straightjacketed by PTSD, must shake off her mental cloud and track the girl down, venturing into the criminal underworld to bring her home so she can be cared for by her family. In that particular framing, Ally Pankiw’s I Used to Be Funny perhaps sounds like a Schrader-esque, quasi-reactionary, deep dive into moral decay. Of course, that’s not really what the film’s about, but it’s easier to talk about it in those terms than what the film’s actually attempting to do. That’s because I Used to Be Funny is about very, very slowly revealing that trauma at the center of its main characters’ shared pasts — an event that inextricably altered the course of both of their lives, the full nature of which isn’t revealed until nearly an hour into the film. It would be unfair to the film, premiering this week as part of SXSW, to give away what that trauma is, but that speaks to the fundamental problem with it: there really isn’t much to chew on here other than navigating the obfuscation. One must wait a small eternity for I Used to Be Funny to finally come out and simply acknowledge the thing we’ve been watching its characters endlessly talk past.
Indie it girl Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby) plays Sam, a Toronto-based standup comedian and nanny mired in a crippling depression (she receives mock adulation from her roommates simply for bathing). We learn from a local news broadcast that 14-year-old Brooke (Olga Petsa), whose family Sam had worked for two years earlier, has run away from home. Sam had a fraught confrontation with Brooke only days earlier — the teen showed up at her house, drunk, demanding to be let in — which just adds to her former nanny’s guilt. In spite of this, we watch Sam attempt to resume a normal life, gravitating toward the local comedy club she used to perform at and where her network of comedian friends congregate backstage. At the same time, the film repeatedly flashes back to years earlier, when Sam first met Brooke and her family. We learn Brooke’s mother was in the hospital, battling a chronic illness, leaving the tween especially moody and disinterested in being saddled with a “babysitter.” Hired by Brooke’s police officer father, Cameron (former The Daily Show correspondent, Jason Jones), who is himself not taking his wife’s sickness especially well, Sam becomes an adjunct member of the family, practically living out of their enormous house and eventually serving as a confidant and friend to Brooke.
Regularly jumping between the parallel narrative tracks, we alternate between Sam, then and now. Old Sam had a supportive boyfriend, Noah (Ennis Esmer), an ascendant comedy career, and an almost older-sister-like relationship with Brooke, serving as a literal shoulder to cry on in the wake of her mother’s eventual passing. Present-day Sam is practically a ghost haunting her own life; incapable of performing on stage and isolated, having pushed away Noah and tensing up at the mere mention of his name. This hazily defined, traumatic life event casts a long shadow over Sam as well as the film itself. Characters make snarky allusions to Sam being desperate for attention or being subject to online trolling campaigns. Her roommates (Sabrina Jalees and Caleb Hearon) try to maintain a positive attitude but Sam’s inability to pay rent or even stomach houseguests is clearly a hardship for them.
And then there’s Brooke, who long before she ran away from home had soured on Sam, weaponizing the Internet as only a teenage girl can to make her life miserable. Crumb by crumb, the film fills in exactly what happened between Sam and Brooke (although most attentive viewers will be far ahead of the film and its miserly dispensing of exposition) and why they’re no longer on speaking terms. But at some point along the way, I Used to Be Funny stops giving us a reason to care about Sam or the explanation for her depression, and it becomes an exercise in hiding the football for as long as humanly possible. The film is so determined to keep us at arm’s length about the vague nature of Sam’s trauma — it’s even unclear for much of the runtime whether Sam was the perpetrator or victim of the very bad thing — that we’re simply left to infer motive behind her sullen behavior. And “why won’t Sam get out of bed or wash her hair?” just isn’t enough to sustain a feature film.
By the time all the pieces have fallen into place and the audience is up to speed, the film is already in its homestretch and the search for Brooke becomes little more than a hasty formality (it turns out the girl isn’t as hard to find as the local news media would have us believe). The film emphasizes the wrong things, teasing out “what happened that night?” when the more constructive question would have been “…and knowing that, how did that change everything?” Pankiw may believe she’s saying something about trauma and the corrosive effect it has on a happy, successful, and semi-public young woman, but in treating the event itself like a game of twenty questions, it reduces it to a storytelling gimmick — a manipulative means of introducing tension and imposing an ad hoc structure upon the film by treating the misery of its characters as an almost tawdry mystery, with misdirection and red herrings aplenty. Like a house of cards built upside down, it contains all the necessary elements to succeed, but the manner in which it is constructed is self-defeating.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.