“It seems like art,” says John Rothman’s character towards the end of My Art, and it is. The film, directed by and starring Laurie Simmons, follows Ellie Shine (Simmons), an artist in her 60s who is going through an existential crisis, one she hopes will be cured by escaping the busy city for a summer retreat in upstate New York. Cemented by a superb cast and a witty, dry humor, My Art is the kind of film that will make you feel like you’re escaping, too.
Ellie is a single art teacher living in New York City. Surrounded by successful friends and young ambitious students, she heads to the isolated home of a famous friend to reset her life and her work. Arriving at her "retreat," Ellie finds a dozen bottles of white wine, drugs stuffed in ice cream containers, and the ground’s gardeners: two out-of-work actors named Frank (Robert Clohessy) and Tom (Josh Safdie).
The film continually flips between reality and the surreal, as Ellie’s artistic eye dreams up sets and scenes, often mimicking the black and white films of Hollywood she attempts to recreate in her DIY art videos.
But "recreate" isn’t the right word; Ellie would shake her head. She tells Frank she wants to embrace the “impossibility of us being them,” the Jimmy Stewarts, the Marlene Dietrichs, and the Marilyn Monroes. Ellie recruits Frank, Tom, and her failed date John (Rothman) to help her with these improbable recreations. Together they make their own Jules and Jim and A Clockwork Orange.
Simmons shines as Ellie, creating an unassuming character who, though creative and expressive, somewhat struggles socially with her awkwardness and blunt nature. But she’s hilarious, and instead of grimacing after she responds to Frank missing his deceased wife with, “You know, Frank, you’ve mentioned that like 500 times.” We laugh because it’s "just Ellie," who eats pot cookies for dinner, lights her cigarette with an extra-long lighter, and takes her disabled dog Bing on "walks" by carrying him in her arms up and down the road.
The film’s cinematography successfully measures up to its writing. From the early shot of Ellie sitting alone outside the museum with the cityscape lounging behind her, to the brief interlude of a beautiful underwater scene (tip your hat to cinematographer Tom Richmond), the artistry is obvious. But even as we watch the dreamy underwater sequence, Simmons reigns you in with Bing awkwardly, hilariously, and adorably swimming in his safety vest.
Other characters include Tom’s wife, Angie (Parker Posey), a sporadic psychotic delight (we’re introduced to her as she placates her husband and poorly attempts to climb a tree), and Meryl, played by Simmon’s daughter Lena Dunham, who provides the young successful perspective that Ellie needs to jumpstart her personal revolution.
The most refreshing aspect of the film is that Ellie’s journey of self-discovery and, eventual, redemption is not dependent on a male love interest. Though she goes on a date and sleeps with a man, Ellie is focused on her work and her love of old Hollywood. Her love affair is with her art (and partly with Bing). There is a purpose to each character and each scene. Moments and scenes that initially seem unnecessary come into play later on in the film, and you feel guilty for temporarily doubting Simmons and her genius.
Though I originally had some reservations about Simmons playing her own lead character (the first act comes off a bit rough), by the end, you realize that she is the only person who could play Ellie.
My Art opens on January 12th in New York City at Quad Cinema, and on January 19th in Los Angeles at Laemmle Ahyra Fine Arts.
All photos via My Art, dir. Laurie Simmons.
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Anna Wesche is a BUST intern, a writer, blogger, and lover of Doritos (Nacho Cheese). Follow her on Instagram at @annamargery to watch her gradual transformation into a cat.