The opening shot of The Sunlit Night confronts the viewer with the direct gaze of three unimpressed critics. They hum and cluck and shake their heads, and they end up saying unkind things about a splashy abstract painting. The artist, Frances (Jenny Slate), absorbs their derision with stoicism. The painting, shown straight-on in all its vibrant color and depth and gesture, looks beautiful and evocative, which ends up providing an apt metaphor for the film itself: gently quirky and hinting at great depths.

Directed by David Wnendt from a screenplay by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (based on her own novel), The Sunlit Night skips through the setup with charming economy. One moment Frances is cavorting with a hunk in a sun-drenched pool and the next moment she’s trudging onto a commuter bus, still dripping in her swimsuit with tears on her cheeks. Her boyfriend dumped her, her younger sister’s getting married and her parents are getting separated. Lying awake in the bunkbeds they’re both too old for, the sister (Elise Kibler) asks a question that will shadow Frances for the rest of the story: “Do you think that love can last?”

The beginning of the answer takes Frances to Norway, where she lands a gig working as an assistant for a reclusive artist. His project: paint an entire barn yellow, every inch of it. Frances doesn’t bat an eye. She’s chatty and nervous and eager to please, and he’s moody and not at all interested in making her feel welcome. The rom-com alerts begin to sound, but this isn’t that kind of story. There’s no budding romance with the rugged Scandinavian genius, but there is a gradual arc toward camaraderie and mutual respect, which is Frances’ first clue about the answer to her sister’s question.

Yasha (Alex Sharp), a young man she glimpses trudging along the side of the road in a black suit, offers another kind of answer. He turns out to be a fellow refugee from New York City, in Norway to give his dead father a Viking funeral. (Zach Galifianakis plays a small role as a Viking impersonator from Cincinnati, and Gillian Anderson appears as Yasha’s icy mother.) Cross-cutting scenes develop the budding friendship between Frances and Yasha, but he’s too steeped in grief to be available for romance. He tells her how he worked his whole life as a baker’s apprentice to his father, and Frances absorbs that idea. After all, she’s been painting someone else’s barn yellow for 12 hours a day, and neglecting her own work. Once she spots a woman at the grocery store who reminds her of a Renaissance portrait, Frances is inspired to paint again.

Here’s where the lasting love is. Frances might never find the right romantic partner, but she has everything she needs to be the artist she is. The scenes of Frances in the act of painting exude a sense of focus and power. Her style, like the film itself, has a soft and intimate vibe, attuned to details and textures with buttery light and velvety shadows. The yellow barn turns out to be something much more interesting than what it sounded like initially, and the same can be said for her Norwegian sojourn. Her new paintings are naked and bold, and she stands before her critics with a new confidence. She’s already found her lasting love.

The rom-com alerts begin to sound, but this isn't that kind of story.
80 %
Gently quirky
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