Credit: Zoe Eisenberg/Slamdance
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

Chaperone — Zoe Eisenberg [Slamdance ’24 Review]

January 27, 2024

If it ever gets proper distribution, Zoe Eisenberg’s new romantic drama Chaperone will surely generate several cycles of enervating discourse on Twitter; it’s rare that a film highlights a complicated character like Misha (Mitzi Akaha) without judgment or audience hand-holding. A realistic portrait of aging millennial ennui, Misha is an aimless 29-year-old who enjoys her low-stress day job at the local movie theater and lounging around her (inherited) house with her elderly cat. The film begins with Kenzie (Jessica Jade Andres), Misha’s boss and friend, begging her to accept a promotion. She knows the theater, seems to genuinely care about it, and could do more good as a manager than a lowly box officer. Misha repeatedly says no, not wanting the responsibility that would accompany such a position. Her parents beg her to sell the house, which is too big for her and in dire need of repairs, but to this she also says no. Misha has carefully cultivated a kind of stasis, and has no desire to disrupt it. 

But this simple life becomes infinitely more complicated when she meets Jake (Laird Akeo), an 18-year-old high school student. He’s charming, and Misha likes the attention he lavishes on her. After their meet-cute in a grocery store, Jake assumes that Misha is a student from a different high school, and she makes the first of many mistakes when she chooses not to correct him. It’s all fun and games, at least at first; Eisenberg isn’t after the complicated, post-modern dynamics of something like Todd Haynes’ recent May December. Smartly, the director makes Jake an adult (technically), taking questions of legality out of the equation while still tiptoeing around whether such an arrangement is a good idea or not. Indeed, rather than screwball comedy or anguished melodrama, the film allows its narrative to unfold in the same languid, unfussy manner as Misha’s demeanor. Shot on location in Hilo, Hawaii, Eisenberg avoids picture-perfect postcard vistas in favor of more quotidian, off-the-beaten-path environs. These are real people who live and work in this place, and there’s nothing particularly glamorous about it to them. It’s a lovely portrait of a particular milieu, even as this burgeoning relationship is constantly threatened by one monumental secret.

Of course, a film needs some kind of dramatic shape, but it’s almost a shame when the necessities of a plot intrude on these vibes. As Misha loses herself in this new relationship, her already tenuous grasp on adulthood erodes even further. First, her brother and Kenzie find out about the age gap between her and her beau; later, Misha and Jake break into her brother’s ice cream shop in the middle of the night. He assumes it was one of his employees, and promptly fires them. Misha, fearing confrontation (and consequences), doesn’t admit to her involvement, allowing the employee to take the fall. The situation finally comes to a head when she throws a house party for Jake and his friends’ graduation. Pretending that she has a really good fake ID, she even buys a mountain of booze and passes it along to a bevy of underage partygoers. Things spiral out of control, and suddenly Misha is suffering the consequences for her many, many poor choices. 

In fact, the film arguably goes too far in punishing her, piling up the abuses as she navigates the fallout from multiple disasters. It’s sad to see, particularly because Akaha is so charming in the role, commanding the screen with a casual, almost effortless charisma — it’s a star-making performance. The film never comes right out and calls her a bad person, and despite some selfish actions, it seems clear that Misha never intends harm. She has no avarice in her heart, but is instead just mostly confused and aimless. At least there’s a nice ambiguity to the film’s ending; Misha takes steps to redress those she has wronged, but there’s a tantalizing suggestion that maybe she hasn’t “learned her lesson” after all. Does love make us do stupid things? Or is it something else entirely? Maybe we’re all still figuring that out.

Published as part of Slamdance Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.