Ah, youth! We can go on and on about the shallow hipsters that populate the films of Joe Swanberg et al., but at a certain point, perhaps while watching Lawrence Michael Levine's wan, mildly aggravating Gabi on the Roof in July, we oldsters just have to throw up our hands and say, "I don't get it."
Gabi on the Roof in July is set in contemporary Brooklyn -- Hipster Central -- amid artistic types, where Gabi (Sophia Takal) has come home from Oberlin for the summer to crash in her brother Sam's (Levine) apartment. It's clear that Gabi is a free spirit with an artistic temperament because she takes her clothes off frequently -- often in the presence of the discomfited Sam -- and obnoxiously treats an art-gallery job interview as some type of lame performance art piece. It's probably to the movie's credit that Gabi is not your typical indie "manic pixie dream girl," because she's no one's dream.
Sam's wealthy girlfriend, Madeline (Brooke Bloom), feels threatened when he starts meeting with a snooty ex, Chelsea (Amy Seimetz), who offers him an opportunity that could further his career as a painter. While Sam deals poorly with his relationships, Gabi falls for his freeloading friend, Garrett (Louis Cancelmi), who may as well enter the film with "self-involved jerk" stamped on his forehead.
One wanted to like Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture because it was kind of nervy of Dunham to portray an existence so close to her own, and play such a "prickly," unpleasant character, who makes such horrendous choices in life. Dunham had a few things going for her, though, in terms of Furniture's broader appeal. She apparently worked well with her actors, who convincingly portrayed a feckless bunch of well-to-do jerks with a prominent sense of entitlement. She wrote some witty dialogue for her erudite little bunch, and the film was expertly shot by the talented Jody Lee Lipes. Most importantly, there is a degree of self-awareness in the work that elevates it. It's tolerable to watch Aura and her friends go through their struggles because it seems clear that Dunham doesn't expect us to adore them despite their flaws.
That's one of the major differences between Tiny Furniture and Gabi, in which Dunham plays a small role. Levine and the rest of his cast (other than Cancelmi, who seems at peace with Garrett's loathsomeness) seem to want us to like their characters, despite their flaws, and it's simply impossible. The cast improvised much of the dialogue in rehearsal, Mike Leigh-style, and while there are some laughs, it's not as sharp as Dunham's, and the acting is uneven. While Dunham delves beneath the surface of her characters, Levine is content to keep things on the surface. For example, while Takal is frequently nude, Levine never explores Gabi's exhibitionism, especially in regard to Sam.
Plotting is also an issue. This type of film needs to have a certain naturalism. Your typical Hollywood romantic comedy plot contrivances don't generally work on this scale. When Charles (Robert White), a brooding lunk -- who is introduced passed out in a bathtub -- turns out to be the film's chivalrous voice of moral reason, or when Gabi's loss of innocence is dramatized metaphorically with the death of a pet, it feels like pure contrivance, and squanders whatever goodwill we might have left.
The entertainment value of Gabi on the Roof in July has to come from somewhere, and when it fails on that basic level, it feels a bit like rubbernecking. There's a certain fascination in watching it, and simply being thankful that, well, you're not them. Do Levine and his cast feel superior to these characters, or do they just not understand how noxious they are? It's possible that we're older, and we just don't understand. Maybe the movie wasn't made for us. But the notion of a youthful audience embracing these characters doesn't make one very sanguine about the future.
Gabi on the Roof in July on AllMovie
Gabi on the Roof in July (2009)