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Rental Review: Lovely By Surprise

June 29, 2009
LBS_6Carrie Preston in Lovely By Surprise. Photos Courtesy of the filmmaker.

Perhaps one of the most suitable titles for a film, Lovely By Surprise is a strong debut from Memphis filmmaker Kirt Gunn. While the film had success on the 2007 film festival trail, it now premieres on DVD tomorrow July 7.

Starring Carrie Preston as Marian (now Arlene on True Blood), Lovely By Surprise takes on the question of bringing characters to life in a fictional novel and the daunting task of a writer to remain true to the story. But more so, the story is one of the human subconscious and how that intersects with the creation of art. Is what we create a manifestation of some other reality or an adaptation of our own truth? Is the writer even aware of how real their words can become?

Following in the vein of films such as Stranger Than Fiction or Adaptation, the film plays with the audience’s expectations of reality often stretching and mashing up reality and fiction. A quirky indie that is both smart and visually lovely, it is of little surprise when the ending leaves you at a loss of what to do next. Like a good book, the characters in Lovely By Surprise captivate and when the story ends, one is left with a hollow feeling knowing your time with them has come to an end.

We begin with Marian as she follows the advice of her professor/lover (played by the always wonderful Austin Pendleton) to kill off the main character in her novel in order to create a true novel. Marian protests, uncertain that is where her story is leading. Her challenge is in finding out that her own strength as a writer is enough – relying on others only leads her astray from finding out the truth.

LBS_2Lena Lamer as Mimi and Reg Rogers as Bob in Lovely By Surprise.

Intersecting Marian’s story is a seemingly unrelated tale of a car salesman and his daughter. Struggling to keep it together after the loss of his wife, Bob (Reg Rogers) worries more about the sanity of his daughter Mimi who has given up speaking after the tragic loss.

An unlikely hero helps out Bob when on the verge of losing his job he runs across a strange barely-clothed man at the dealership. Having helped him stave off unemployment for at least one day, Bob takes in the stranger who opens up Mimi’s world helping her to find joy again and to speak. As we draw closer to the end of the film, we see more and more how this parallel story actually takes the script to a new level of creative writing.

Rogers, hands down, gives one of his best performances to date. His haunting sorrow and disconnect from life, yet his struggle to not drown in his own pain in order to protect his daughter is all brought to light through vacant stares and small actions that convey more than his dialogue ever could.

His boss, Dave (Richard Masur) is a kind man that takes pity on him. Dave’s reaction to Bob tells us just how broken the man is, rather than just being offbeat or quirky.

LBS_1Michael Chernus as Humkin in Lovely By Surprise.

A third story comes to life in the film as Marian writes her novel. Her main characters, Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts), live an unquestioning life in her version of their reality. Content to eat cereal and live on a stranded boat that is not in water, Mopekey grows concerned when Humkin questions their existence. Roberts and Chernus both had a challenging role to take on for this as their characters are somewhat unformed, a half-creation during the writing process. Their performances reflect this, with Roberts especially performing as a caricature of a human being. Half grunting, half verbally cognizant, Mopekey can be so much more than Marian lets him be, but fear seems to keep him trapped.

But not Humkin. He wants to break free of this half-existence. He wants to really live and for Marian she struggles to contain the core of truth that she is attempting to bury with Humkin.

With three stories, Lovely By Surprise should be overwhelming with never a dull moment but instead there are moments of respite towards the center of the film where too many characters are wandering off the page, a little too lost until Marian begins to make some real choices.

Marian struggles with her choice to kill off  Humkin but after a night of fitful sleep awakens to find handwritten notes that change her story. Somehow, her main character Humkin  has escaped the clutches of the novel and found his way into reality. Mopekey, after attempting to kill Humkin, follows his escape route.

LBS_8Marian gets advice from Jackson (Austin Pendleton).

Pendleton’s character attempts to help her but by the time the film reveals what is happening, there is little anyone can do. The line between creativity and madness blurs. Marian must face what she has kept hidden. The film beautifully ties together the loose ends of the numerous stories into a conclusion that is better left for you to discover on your own.

Lovely by Surprise is one of those films that upon a second viewing gains even more of my respect with the minor details becoming so evident from the first scene. Gunn deftly reveals only what we need to know, unraveling only bits and pieces of the yarn until Marian is able to succumb to her own story. By then, Gunn already has us tied up in knots.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2009 10:27 am

    Correction: Lena Lamer, not Lena Larner.

  2. June 30, 2009 12:32 pm

    WOW!!!! What a well-written review!! Having seen the film a couple of times myself, I can fully confirm that this critic fully “gets” this film.

    Put it on your Netflix or Blockbuster Online queue. It will actually be coming out there on July 7.

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