At any moment in “The Sunlit Night,” you’re not sure if Jenny Slate’s Frances is about to crack a joke or burst into tears.
Like Slate’s character in the riotous but sad “Obvious Child,” Frances is more than a bit lost. The first minutes of the comedy/drama find the art student weathering a brutal critique of her work, a breakup, the end of her parents’ marriage and her sister’s announcement that she’s getting married.
It’s a lot, especially since Frances, her sister and her parents are crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. So, when Frances finds out about a completely unsuitable gig, painting a barn in sun-never-sets northern Norway, of course she says yes.
There’s not much for plot in “Sunlit Night,” and I can easily imagine people who wouldn’t like it, but there is something beautiful about how perfectly it locates a feeling of confusion, ambivalence and grief. Frances makes a lot of mistakes, many of them involving people who are unexpectedly nude, and the missteps feel right because it’s a movie about a person who isn’t sure who she is, going to the end of the Earth to try to figure it out. (Technically, she goes there to escape New York, but the “figure it out” part is a bonus.)
Guided by Slate’s gift for gently tossing off wry observations, “The Sunlit Night” drifts between Frances’ encounters with her neurotic family (Jessica Hecht and David Paymer are very funny as her distracted parents) and the people she meets in Norway. They include the autocratic artist who is paying her to paint the barn (Fridtjov Såheim), a gloomy drifter (Alex Sharp), a dude who fancies himself a latter-day Norse warrior (Zach Galifianakis) and a droll Russian woman who shows up to attend a Viking funeral. She is played by Gillian Anderson, and is it wrong of me to want Gillian Anderson to play sarcastic Russian women in everything?
The movie’s tone veers from realistic to absurdist, but it feels of a piece because Slate’s performance is so opaque and curious. There are no huge life lessons in “The Sunlit Night,” but the script, which Rebecca Dinerstein Knight based on her own novel, allows for the possibility that escaping from everything you know can be a good way to discover what you don’t know. So there’s a sense that even though the movie doesn’t give Frances an “aha!” moment, it has at least given her some “maybe” moments.
I hope I’m conveying that this is a charming but fairly odd movie. Just in case I’m not, I’ll mention that Frances lives in a camper, with a baby goat for a roommate. I suspect your reaction to “Sunlit Night” will depend on how you feel about Slate, whose daydreamy voice, off-kilter timing, inchoate sadness and sudden outbursts of joy make Frances both baffling and easy to relate to — especially now, when none of us knows what comes next.
When I saw the movie last week, I liked it but wondered if it were too slight. Director David Wnendt’s odd rhythms and stunning views of mountains and fjords have lingered, though. I keep thinking about them and hoping Frances is still out there, looking for answers.