Spare a thought for Lynn Shelton’s Laggies, a perfectly delightful romantic comedy that is going to get completely lost by hitting town the same day as Birdman, Interstellar and Big Hero 6. It’s a suicide run and no mistake — one insisted on by the film’s distributor. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, this is a minor tragedy, but it’s a tragedy all the same. On a lighter week — especially one without an art house juggernaut like Birdman — Laggies might have done fairly solid business if only because of its stars, but there’s much more to like here than the presence of Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell and a surprisingly good Chloë Grace Moretz. This is far and away Ms. Shelton’s most accomplished film to date — and though she didn’t write this film, it feels consistent with her earlier work in the best way. In fact, based on a conversation I had with her at the time of Your Sister’s Sister (2012), Laggies feels more like the person I talked with than do some of her theoretically more personal films. (Whether she’d agree with that assessment is unknown.) Some allowance must be given to the possibility of happy chances. Both Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell were replacements for cast members who dropped out (Anne Hathaway and Paul Rudd, respectively) and both are blessings.
Knightley plays Megan — a 28-year-old woman who is clearly one of the laggies of the title. She has a degree that she has little interest in pursuing, a pointless job twirling a sign for her father’s (Jeff Garlin) business, a live-in marriage-minded boyfriend, Anthony (Mark Webber), and a gaggle of very focused old friends. Everyone — except her laid-back father — has very clear ideas of what Megan should do, how she should behave and who she should be. The problem is that Megan isn’t happy with any of it, which isn’t hard to understand. Her friends — a long-standing group to which Anthony also belongs — are vapid and frankly absurd. Anthony is one of those people who dotes on life coaches and self-actualization courses. However, it’s his unshakable faith in these prepackaged solutions that allows Megan to drop out of her life and spend a week with a high school kid, Annika (Moretz), she met in a grocery store parking lot. Anthony is not only willing to believe she’s going to a life course, but happy with the prospect.
Despite her burgeoning friendship with this much younger girl, this is a poorly thought-out plan. Even the hippest of teenagers tend to come with some sort of parental figure, and Annika is no exception. The silly idea that Megan can simply take up undetected residency at Annika’s house is quickly squelched when her divorced father — the not as oblivious as he might seem Craig (Rockwell) — finds this strange woman sleeping on the floor of Annika’s bedroom. The ease with which Craig buys into Megan’s story of an apartment that won’t be ready for a week is the weakest aspect of the movie. It’s by no means fatal, and Rockwell’s sly sense of humor — combined with the clever characterization touches of his decor (including such quirky, strange bedfellow touches as posters for the grade-Z The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and the silent classic The Vanishing American) — suggest a more complex and interesting character than the script quite supplies.
Yes, once Rockwell’s character enters the film, you can be pretty sure how the film is going to play out. But there’s a deft balance between Megan’s romance with Craig and her relationship with Annika and her teenage friends — and it all pulls together in a manner that defeats any criticism. The scene with Annika’s estranged mother (Gretchen Mol) is especially fine — and again, the design plays into it with a postcard reproduction of the poster from 1929’s In Old Arizona in Mol’s kitchen suggesting some nicely ambiguous lingering connection to Rockwell. The film may — when all is said and done — be essentially a female variant on the Judd Apatow man-child movies, but it’s more graceful, more human and more pleasing than anything Apatow ever made. You should try to make time for Laggies this weekend. Rated R for language, some sexual material and teen partying.