(The 2023 Tribeca Film Festival runs June 7-18 and HtN has a ton of coverage coming like Melanie Addington’s Downtown Owl movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Based on Chuck Klosterman’s novel of the same name, Downtown Owl premiered at Tribeca this week which may only draw you in due to the author but stands apart, particularly as co-director and star Lily Rabe’s film. Co-directed alongside her real-life husband Hamish Linklater, the film world premiered at Tribeca this week to mixed reviews written from what I can mostly tell by men. And here is what I think went over their heads.
Like much of Klosterman’s wit, playing with the audience and pulling them into the story is essential which has some hits and misses in the film. A tricky voice to translate to the screen is the story of a woman who moves to a small town in Nebraska (although it was filmed in Minnesota) for one semester to teach while her husband works on his thesis under her father at an unnamed institution. While set in 1983, the pointed focus on small-town politics, high school politics, and how people speak about women’s choices is as poignant as today.
In one particularly Klosterman-esque scene, Julia (Rabe) is trying to get a guy she so clearly likes to open up to her, and his obliviousness to her makes her turn to the camera to explain what she means with both the first out-loud statement to him and then her explanation to us. In a room full of men, I was the only one that laughed out loud when her internal monologue was pointing out how she was here to save him and he should let her while externally she was just making small talk.
Rabe brings to life Julia in a beautiful way that leaves the other main characters Horace (Ed Harris) and Mitch (August Blanco Rosenstein) in the dust. But for both Rabe’s Julia and high school pregnant teen Tina (played by Arden Michalec), men have them trapped in situations they haven’t figured out how to navigate. While Julia as a newcomer is encouraged by others afraid to speak up about Tina’s situation, she explores if it is a situation she should even help, while figuring out her situation is more dire than she pretends away.
Influenced by her new friend (who I am not sure they ever name but is played by Vanessa Hudgens) to live differently, she begins having too much fun at the local bar (a great location choice) with every male thirsty for the new woman in town despite her reluctance even to look their way until Henry Golding’s character, a cowboy, walks in. The one who doesn’t pay attention to her and doesn’t want her. This a theme she is more commonly familiar with as her father dismisses her contributions and her husband, distant and disconnected, remains separated by only a phone (with a cord because 1983).
Never seen on screen her relationship with both is played out entirely by showing Rabe’s viewpoint. One scene works perfectly with Rabe at her height of performance. The rest feel stilted, much like her relationship with both. Perhaps it is lived experience of a breakup and finding out who you are as a woman’s hero journey is one that maybe relates more when you live in that experience, or perhaps because the film has some uneven moments, I walked away liking it a lot more than others.
Mistakes are made, standing up for another female with a position of authority is a challenge when she can’t stand up for herself. Once she does, it’s too late for Tina. Perhaps one of the most midwestern moments in the film is the sudden blizzard, which if you’ve ever lived in that part of the country, can take you by absolute sudden surprise. Tension is built up on who will survive with strange and mixed results that felt unsatisfactory to how little attention it gets. A simple headline of a main character while others stay. But isn’t that life? We either make choices that let us enjoy the moments or choices that make us miserable and in the end, we all just end up with a few lines of print as our obituary that someone else defines who we are. Whether the film is perfect or not, it, like Klosterman’s words always do, gives us a moment to think about the human experience.
– Melanie Addington
2023 Tribeca Film Festival; Lily Rabe; Downtown Owl movie review