I always found myself relating a lot to Carrie Pilby when I first read the book.That’s not a “backdoor brag,” to quote 30 Rock. Unlike Carrie, I didn’t graduate Harvard at eighteen, I don’t have a photographic memory, and I’m certainly not a genius. But Carrie’s own feelings of isolation and discomfort with what she perceives as the sex-obsessed adult world absolutely resonated with me in my early teen years. At the time when I read the original Caren Lissner novel, I was probably convinced I was too smart to really relate to those around me. Actually, I was definitely convinced at age thirteen that I was too smart for my peers, and had a hard time adjusting to middle and high school as a result. Because I read The Agony and the Ecstasy and counted Dead Poet’s Society as my favorite movie, I clearly was on an entirely different plane from my superficial, top-40 listening peers.
So when I learned that Carrie Pilby was being made into a film, I was pretty excited, even though returning to Carrie’s world now feels a bit like looking back into a photo album filled with embarrassing photographs — recognizable, but regrettable. The project seemed to languish in development hell for quite a while as Hailee Steinfeld was originally cast, then dropped out, and yet I continued to follow its production, and was pleased when it finally got made and released. My memory of the book is blurry, but the film Carrie Pilby, anchored by a strong lead performance from Bel Powley (Diary of a Teenage Girl), is an overall enjoyable, if extremely predictable, look at the difficulties of adjusting the complexities of adult life — and the brave new world of adult sexuality — when you’ve convinced yourself beforehand that you won’t fit in.
Over the course of the film, guided by her wry therapist (Nathan Lane), Carrie slowly begins to integrate herself into the world around her. Having gone through college as a teenager, she feels like she cannot relate to anyone she meets — where she is still a rather naive bookworm who listens to classical music, seemingly everyone around her is an immoral nymphomaniac. As a result, she spends her days watching DVDs in her swanky New York brownstone, butting heads with her father (Gabriel Byrne) back in London, refusing to unpack and deal with her general malaise until her therapist charges her to tackle a list of things that will make her happy and push her out of her comfort zone. The list includes the easy (drink a cherry cola, which Carrie loved doing as a child), the difficult (go on a date, get a pet), and the nigh-impossible, at least where Carrie is concerned (make a friend).
Carrie tries, with intermittent efforts ranging from the half-hearted to the downright game, to expand her horizons, meet new people, and find some peace of mind. She takes a night job as a legal proofreader, and attempts to befriend the employees working there (Vanessa Bayer and Desmin Borges). She buys a pair of goldfish (after being advised that goldfish are social creatures), but one of them dies after she leaves her apartment window open in December. She goes on a date — but with an engaged man (Jason Ritter) whom she initially plans to expose as a cheater. There is, of course, a peripheral romantic subplot involving the Manic Pixie Dream Boy-esque Cy (William Moseley) who lives in her building. (He literally plays the didgeridoo.) Cy is a cute cutout of a love interest who finds Carrie’s combative nature charming, but he doesn’t really need to be more than that, frankly — the focus is squarely on Carrie’s coming-of-age story, as it should be.
Interwoven through the straightforward narrative of Carrie Pilby are flashbacks of Carrie’s time at Harvard, where she is swept away by a predatory English professor (Colin O’Donoghue), which gradually allows the audience some insight into what turned Carrie so jaded towards humanity, as well as her specific discomfort with sexuality. While the scenes of O’Donoghue’s character grooming Carrie are extremely difficult to watch — you want to tell her to run away now, Carrie! from this creepy older man who is fetishizing her youth and innocence — the climax of the film, which involves Carrie’s father punching the professor in the face, is rather satisfying. The changes made in adapting the original novel are mostly updating it to the present day, since the novel was published in 2003, practically making a straight adaptation a period piece. The filmmakers smartly decided to let Bel Powley use her natural English accent rather than having her try and flatten her voice out into an Emma Watson-esque approximation of American speech, and Powley’s excellent work makes Carrie not only someone I feel could be real, but someone I actually find too close for comfort.
The cast of Carrie Pilby is stacked, which makes the film’s quiet release onto VOD and in limited theaters rather odd. Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane, Bel Powley, Colin O’Donoghue, Vanessa Bayer and Desmin Borges — as well as Jason Ritter, who seems to be everywhere these days. I have to wonder why there seems to be an endless number of Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies (and corresponding billboards) in theaters, but I had to actively keep track of Carrie Pilby to make sure I didn’t miss its release. It would, perhaps, make a nice double bill with Edge of Seventeen, the Hailee Steinfeld movie directed by Kelly Fremon Craig —both films center on socially awkward, maladjusted, headstrong teenage girls, and are are both directed by women (Carrie Pilby marks the directing debut of Susan Johnson, who previously produced 2004’s Mean Creek). Watching Carrie Pilby try to navigate her life is often cringeworthy for me in particular, but that desire to cringe and cover my face with embarrassment attests to the strength of the character and of Powley’s performance in this unremarkable but pleasant film.
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