Let’s get this out of the way from the start. It is impossible to watch Lynn Shelton’s My Effortless Brilliance and not be reminded of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy. On a superficially descriptive level, they sound the exact same: two estranged thirty-something male friends are reunited for a few days in the verdant forests of the Pacific Northwest, where they struggle against distance and time to restore the connection they shared in the past. Yet there is a deeper kinship between them that makes a comparison even more valid, and, in many ways, unavoidable. Contrary to the emotional fireworks on display in most character-based dramas, whether Hollywood or Indieville, Shelton and Reichardt use subtlety to tell their stories. For them, what isn’t said is more expressive and revealing than several pages of nail-on-the-head dialog ever could be.
Though Reichardt’s vision is perhaps more overtly artistic in its reliance on imagery to tell its tale of friendship lost, perhaps that is because her characters actually had a friendship to lose. In Shelton’s film, the relationship between Eric Lambert Jones (Sean Nelson) and Dylan (Basil Harris) was always lopsided. From the very beginning, the solipsistic Eric made no effort to understand or relate to his supposed friend, until Dylan got fed up and disconnected himself from Eric completely. Years later, Eric is a successful novelist, but it’s clear that he hasn’t done any internal expansion. In the middle of a book tour, he tracks down his former friend, who has relocated to the mountains of Eastern Washington, with the seeming hopes of restoring some semblance of a friendship. While Dylan’s annoyance with Eric hasn’t waned, he nonetheless allows him to stay over for the weekend. Is he simply lonely or is he looking for a flicker of growth in the self-absorbed Eric? Or, more pointedly, is he under Eric’s spell once again, crippled under the weight of Eric’s obscenely massive ego?
What makes My Effortless Brilliance feel so uncomfortably real is its fervent commitment to capturing the convoluted grayness of how things actually are. How one minute we are disgusted with ourselves for befriending the most awful of people, and how the next minute we feel sympathy for those same awful people. In this particular case, what at first appears to be Eric’s rampant, condemnable egocentrism gradually reveals itself to be something much sadder. We can see it in Dylan’s pained face as the weekend drags on. He understands that Eric is a sorry creature, yet for some reason he is unable to dismiss him completely. Underneath the palpable friction, he sees tiny flickers of potential in Eric. And then Eric unleashes another cruelly backhanded compliment that sounds like an outright put-down, and Dylan’s frustration and annoyance rises once again. My Effortless Brilliance is filled with these moments of awkward rawness.
In a major departure from Reichardt’s ode to dissolving friendships, Shelton introduces a third character to further complicate the situation. Jim (Calvin Reeder) is a local who couldn’t be more different than Eric if he tried (the fact that he would never try is just one of the traits that separates him from Eric). At first, Dylan’s easy friendship with the anti-intellectual, unpretentious Jim feels like another stake in Eric’s coffin. But somehow, Shelton uses this seemingly black-and-white contrast to add even deeper shades of gray to the story.
The film’s overall success as a convincing, naturalistic drama can most directly be attributed to Shelton’s approach to the production. In reaction to the more traditional multi-tiered set-up of her first feature, We Go Way Back, she employed a much more organic and intimate approach this time around. In stripping down the crew to herself, her cast, and three principal technicians (cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, sound designer Vinny Smith, and production designer Jasminka Vukcevic), Shelton was able to get intimate in a way that a bigger production would not allow. She also took a different approach with regards to character, allowing the actors to come up with much of their own dialog. Nelson, Harris, and Reeder are clearly liberated by this approach, delivering performances that feel lived-in and believable. This communal approach to storytelling is aided greatly by Kasulke’s effortlessly assured cinematography, which manages to be both unobtrusive and beautiful at the same time.
My Effortless Brilliance is a well-executed dissection of a particularly complicated male friendship. As is the case in the real world, relationships like Eric and Dylan’s aren’t as simple as three-strikes-and-you’re-out. There are too many factors that prevent a firm stance from ever being taken. Shelton and her collaborators realize this. By shunning traditional, formulaic character interplay, they are able to dig deeper, resulting in a drama where far more complicated truths emerge.
— Michael Tully