Her name virtually synonymous with a particular breed of shaggily perceptive, semi-improvised relationship comedy, Lynn Shelton takes a step closer to the mainstream with "Laggies," her sixth feature film and the first one she didn't write herself (it was scripted by promising newcomer Andrea Seigel). Starring a delightfully loose-limbed Keira Knightley as an aimless young woman who retreats from her close circle of friends to figure out what she wants to do with herself, this perky comedy of regression follows a familiar late-coming-of-age trajectory, and Shelton's admirers may well feel she's sacrificed authenticity and spontaneity for a bright, plasticized commercial sheen. Yet it remains a consistently amusing and appealing romp, bolstered by warm supporting turns from Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell that should help steer it toward an appreciative off-Hollywood audience.
Ten years after graduating from high school, Washington suburbanite Megan (Knightley) has no career and no motivation, a hopeless situation indulged by her carefree dad (Jeff Garlin) and her adoring longtime boyfriend, Anthony (Mark Webber). She and Anthony still hang out regularly with the tight-knit cluster of friends they had in high school, including type-A queen bee Allison (Ellie Kemper), whose lavish wedding triggers an unexpected life change for Megan. When she spots her father in a compromising position mere minutes after receiving a startling marriage proposal from Anthony, it's simply too much for her to process; a solitary drive takes her to a grocery-store parking lot, where she winds up impulsively buying booze for a bunch of teenagers.
Feeling stifled by her gal-pals and the rigid life stages they expect her to adhere to, Megan enjoys a sense of liberation in the company of these naive, energetic cool kids, especially Annika (Moretz), a personable, mildly rebellious teen who's having trouble at school and at home. On a whim, Megan tells Anthony that she's going out of town to attend a personal-improvement seminar; instead, she decides to lie low at Annika's house for a week and think hard (but not too hard) about the future. Naturally, Megan also meets Annika's dad, Craig (Rockwell), who's wacky and good-humored enough to tolerate the presence of a strange, fully grown woman in their home.
In addition to being divorced, Craig works as a divorce lawyer, an apt choice for a movie so attuned to the reality that most marriages end in dysfunction and separation. For all its breezy-naughty banter and sugary visuals (courtesy of Ben Kasulke's bright HD lensing, John Levin's suburban-chic production design and Ronald Leamon's colorful costumes), "Laggies" is thoughtful enough to suggest that too many people make major life decisions just to go with the flow, a problem that weighs heavily on Megan's mind as she contemplates her own impending nuptials. And as she hangs out with Annika, at one point taking the girl to visit her long-absent mom (Gretchen Mol), Megan inevitably closes the line from fun houseguest to maternal stand-in -- a situation complicated even further when she and Craig acknowledge their own feelings for one another.
The comic shenanigans keep coming thick and fast as Megan, for all her good intentions and honest affection for her new acquaintances, stumbles from one rash, thoughtless decision to the next. True to its title, "Laggies" lags a bit at 100 minutes, especially in the home stretch, which shamelessly packs in a drunk-driving incident, an airport climax and a prom-night denouement. A less predictable, more open-ended conclusion to Megan's quarter-life crisis would have been preferable, as she essentially exchanges one set of expectations (her high-school friends') for another (the audience's).
But if the narrative progression feels too tidy and circumscribed, Shelton's talent for bringing out the best in her actors remains satisfyingly intact. Knightley has taken on any number of daring change-of-pace roles in recent years, from her bold display of mental illness in "A Dangerous Method" to her musical turn in "Can a Song Save Your Life?," and while this is scarcely a taxing part by comparison, it allows the actress to reveal yet another winning yet underexposed side of her talent. Some are sure to gripe that Knightley is too attractive for the role of a slackerish Everywoman (she and Garlin certainly don't seem to hail from neighboring gene pools, let alone the same one). But from her slightly nasal vocal inflection to the sly facial twitches that provide a window into her goofy thought processes, she gives a physically and emotionally dexterous performance that would easily sustain a weaker script than this one.
The actress generates a warm, effortless chemistry with Moretz and Rockwell, both bringing humor, decency and a certain wounded pride to their own beaten-down characters. In the supporting cast, Garlin and Kemper make memorable impressions, while Kaitlyn Dever, so good in "Short Term 12," scores some big throwaway laughs as Annika's terminally sarcastic friend, the very picture of Gen-Y jadedness.
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