Carrie Pilby may only be remembered as a stepping stone on Powley’s road to stardom, but that’s still something.
Carrie Pilby, based on Caren Lissner’s 2003 book of the same name, would have worked better as a quirky sitcom, perhaps one of those beautifully-produced, California-set Amazon or Netflix originals. With some time, the irritating young genius title character (played by the magnetic Bel Powley) may have blossomed into a Sheldon Cooper-esque lovable smartypants. Carrie’s colleagues (Vanessa Bayer and Desmin Borges) would have a chance to do more than serve as desperate comic relief. Carrie might have the chance to believably work through her three suitors (Jason Ritter, William Moseley, and Colin O’Donoghue) and her ultimate choice might not seem so offensively obvious. And maybe the incredible talents of Nathan Lane and Gabriel Byrne wouldn’t feel so ignored if they were given more than just a few scenes in which to dispense rote fatherly advice.
This wishful thinking serves to point out Carrie Pilby’s biggest problem, which isn’t that it is an inherently bad film but rather that it wastes so much by trying to do too much. By trying to be part coming-of-age-quest, part romance, part father-daughter drama, part workplace comedy and part quirky character study, Carrie Pilby manages to be none of the above.
The film’s action kicks off with Carrie’s therapist (Lane) giving her a list of things to do to get her life going. It’s like P.S. I Love You for self-absorbed millennials. Carrie is a genius (a sentiment she expresses continuously throughout the film), and as a Harvard graduate at age 19 is well educated in terms of books but little in the way of a personal life. Carrie is judgmental and self-obsessed, and Kara Holden’s script has transformed the novel’s humorously out-of-touch Carrie into a newer, grumpier hipster Carrie.
The fallout resulting from Carrie’s attempts to follow her therapist’s clichéd life advice is predictable but compelling if only because of the mischievous twinkle in Powley’s eyes. Powley, so good in Marielle Heller’s 2015 Sundance Hit The Diary of a Teenage Girl, is great here, too, though the material never rises to meet her. The rest of the excellent cast is game, too, but they’re given precious little to do.
Producer and music video director Susan Johnson makes her directorial debut here, and it’s obvious that she is a talent to watch, even if this particular film isn’t firing on all cylinders. The production design is lovely, and scenes feel as if they’re taking place in real, live places rather than sets, and the camera work is smooth, particularly some of the more ambitiously-lengthed takes that bring the breathlessness of dating to life. The problems, particularly the jack-of-all-trades thematic approach, are almost entirely at the script level, and the blame for this doesn’t rest entirely with the scripters. Though the novel version of Carrie Pilby was charming in 2003 (and was updated and rereleased in 2009), a tale about the suffering of a white, straight, rich, super-smart late teen figuring out life among the perfect décor of a Manhattan Christmastime isn’t entirely relatable anymore. And while the film is admirable in that there are many women on the production team, so much of Carrie Pilby is obsessed with Carrie’s love life. Carrie has an IQ of 185! Have her save the world, not make eyes at her didgeridoo-playing neighbor.
While the film can’t seem to decide on a genre, it is worth watching if only to catch a glimpse of its ascending talent, particularly its wonderful lead. At the end of the day, Carrie Pilby may only be remembered as a stepping stone on Powley’s road to stardom, but that’s still something.