Synopsis: When St. Vincent sets out to make a documentary about her music, the goal is to both reveal and revel in the unadorned truth behind her on-stage persona. But when she hires a close friend to direct, notions of reality, identity, and authenticity grow increasingly distorted and bizarre.
Stars: St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein, Dakota Johnson, Ezra Buzzington, Toko Yasuda, Chris Aquilino, Drew Connick
Director: Bill Benz
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: It’s always an interesting exercise to approach a project featuring a performer with a devoted following that I’m not all-too familiar with. In the case of The Nowhere Inn, there’s two of them, starting with Carrie Brownstein, who appeared for seven seasons in the cult hit comedy series Portlandia. Disclosure time: I’ve never seen the show (one can only take on so much) but have heard tell of its brilliance and of Brownstein’s ability in particular to shift, chameleon-like, between characters, genders, styles, etc. Also a talented musician, Brownstein’s feature-film work has been limited with roles in films like 2015’s Carol and 2018’s Tag being small but memorable.
Am I a dyed-in-the-wool fan of St. Vincent (the stage name of multi-hyphenate artist Annie Clark)? Not exactly. However, anytime I’d seen her perform on television or heard her music there was something undeniably captivating about the way she was able to draw an audience in with her enigmatic presence. A bit of an all-around mystery and perfectly willing to change up her look so completely that if you hadn’t seen her in a few years, you may think you’ve bought a ticket to the wrong show, St. Vincent has amassed a legion of fans waiting to see what happens next. They’re in for a treat as the musician moves into film (after appearing as her off-stage alter-ego in Brownstein’s television show) and works with Brownstein to write a most unusual, but ultimately mesmerizing, bit of meta moviemaking.
A stretch limo speeds through a desert carrying St. Vincent to her next gig. The limo driver doesn’t know who she is, has never heard of her. He calls his son. He’s never heard of her either. They ask if she’d sing one of her songs. She does. It doesn’t have the memory-jogging effect any of them hoped. So begins The Nowhere Inn (“Where nothing and no one wins.” according to the lyrics of the haunting title track), a documentary (sort of) crossed with a mockumentary (kinda) alternately filtered through a experimental horror lens…with concert footage interspersed throughout. It’s a lot more accessible and interested in the way people tick than the trailer or I have made it seem, so you just have to trust me that where the movie begins is quite different than the way it ends. And when I say ends, I mean you have to stay until the last note of the film has been struck even after the credits have completed.
As she embarks on a concert tour, St. Vincent hires her friend Carrie Brownstein to make a documentary of life on the road. Ready to capture the good, the bad, and the ugly of the tour route, Brownstein signs up, even with reservations about leaving her sick father and wondering in the back of her mind how this will test the close personal relationship she has with her friend, now employer. While the shoot progresses and Brownstein realizes she’s not getting the footage she needs, she encourages in her subject opportunities to come off less like the easy-going off-stage persona (Annie) and more like the adopted identity she formed as St. Vincent. As the line between the performer and the person blur, it throws an increasingly biting wrench into not just the success of the film but in the future of the long-standing friendship.
Using St. Vincent’s music, at one point a family of homestead musicians do a rollicking rendition of 2011’s “Year of the Tiger”, director Bill Benz keeps the action propelling forward and it all stays on track right up until the end when it can’t help but fall into David Lynch territory. That’s a bummer and though Lynch himself would I think love the movie, even he’d likely admit there were better ways to check out of The Nowhere Inn. Until then, Brownstein and St. Vincent (as aggressively impressive in the film acting department as she is onstage performing) have kept upping the stakes with one another, seeming to dare the other to take different risks with each passing scene. Even a few random appearances by Dakota Johnson (Our Friend) can’t derail the tense and increasingly perilous kinship between the musician and the friend she’s hired to document the reality she now actively is rebelling against.
Movies such as The Nowhere Inn with their clever wink-wink to the audience can only work if the filmmakers are willing to embrace the audience and involve them in the cleverness they construct. That’s why so many similar genre fare fails, because little attention is paid to the people out there in the dark that will be watching and digesting what’s being put on their plate. What Brownstein and St. Vincent have whipped up is a soufflé that’s light as air but richly filling the deeper you dig in. At the center is the breakdown of a friendship and unveiling that even when something is shown to be real you can’t always trust that reality. That’s nothing we haven’t seen harvested before, right? It’s the way the screenwriters have added their own voice and vocabulary to the set-up that you find yourself tethered to their emotions almost as much as they are, eventually getting to the point where you are hanging on each word and every visual framed by Benz and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl. To conclude my fancy Yelp review: checking in and checking out The Nowhere Inn is a must-do when you have the chance.