The Movie Waffler SXSW 2023 Review - I USED TO BE FUNNY | The Movie Waffler


I Used to Be Funny review
A traumatised comedian searches for the missing girl to whom she formerly served as au pair.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ally Pankiw

Starring: Rachel Sennott, Olga Petsa, Ennis Esmer, Jason Jones, Sabrina Jalees, Caleb Hearon, Dani Kind

At some point in their career every comedic actor will inevitably decide they need to show their range and play a "serious" i.e dramatic role. It's usually after they've spent at least a decade establishing their comic chops. Rachel Sennott, who burst onto the indie comedy scene just a few years ago with her breakout role in Shiva Baby and cemented her reputation by being the best thing about the otherwise unfulfilling Bodies Bodies Bodies, isn't wasting any time. She's already making the transition to dramatic roles with I Used to Be Funny, the feature debut of writer/director Ally Pankiw.

While the role of Sam, a young stand-up comic recovering from a traumatic incident, gives Sennott the chance to show her dramatic range, it also exploits her established comic talents to great effect. As such, while the film deals with some of the darkest subject matter imaginable, you'll find yourself grinning through much of its narrative.

We initially find Sam a morose figure, living with her best friends Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon) but refusing to leave their house. We learn she's been like this for quite some time, ever since the aforementioned incident, the details of which are gradually teased out in a manner that means I would have to enter spoiler territory in order to discuss their specifics.

I Used to Be Funny review

Sam is shaken out of her stupor when she sees a news report on a missing 14-year-old girl. The girl in question is Brooke (Olga Petsa), and Sam was once her au pair. Through flashbacks we watch as Sam is interviewed by Brooke's tightly wound cop father Cameron (Jason Jones) for the position. Brooke's mother is essentially dying in a hospital and Cameron needs someone to both look after and befriend his daughter. Though he struggles to connect with Sam's sense of humour, often deployed as a defence mechanism, Cameron senses that she might be able to break through to Brooke, and he's correct. The two young women become the best of pals, until the "incident" shatters their relationship.

A couple of days prior to the news breaking of Brooke's disappearance, Sam had an uncomfortable encounter that saw the teen hurl a rock through her window before screaming abuse at her former au pair/bff. When the police seem disinterested, Sam takes it upon herself to track Brooke down.

I Used to Be Funny review

It seems initially the film is set to be a procedural with an offbeat amateur detective, much in the manner of another recent Canadian indie, Disappearance at Clifton Hill (both movies share a Niagara Falls setting). Sam's investigation is the film's weak point however, as it's largely left until the final act, when Sam decides to act upon a clue that should have been obvious well before that point. It also makes no sense that the police are disinterested. Are we really supposed to believe the disappearance of the daughter of a cop wouldn't immediately become the police force's top priority?

Thankfully, it's easy to overlook this fudged plot point as the rest of the film is so engaging. It's a movie of two distinct halves, one being a feelgood friendship comedy as we warm to Sam and Brooke's sisterly relationship, the other a dark drama about recovering from a heinous act. What's so distinctive about Pankiw's approach is how she so effortlessly blends the two. Despite flipping back and forward between these disparate arcs, the movie is never tonally jarring, nor does it ever come off as distasteful. As Sam begins to come out of her shell, she owns her trauma through humour, and the film itself understands that even our darkest moments can bring out a smile with a well delivered piece of black comedy. Sam's housemates are fellow comics who have reached the point where they still care for Sam but want her to begin to move on, which leads to some of the movie's funniest interactions as they subtly suggest she start paying rent or at least picking up some toilet rolls when she's out.

But while there are laughs throughout, some of an uncomfortable variety, I Used to Be Funny never loses sight of the tragedy at its core. One of the movie's saddest elements is the breakdown of Sam's relationship with her boyfriend Noah (Ennis Esmer), an ostensibly decent guy who wasn't there for her when she needed him most. But like Lukas Dhont's recent Belgian drama Close, I Used to Be Funny keys into the unique sadness of the end of a platonic friendship. You may find yourself rooting for Sam and Brooke more forcibly than if they were a pair of troubled lovers in a rom-com.

2023 movie reviews