A post-high school hometown ode leaking disillusioned reluctance from every tree-lined suburban cul-de-sac, The New Year treads its familiar territory most ably when dramatizing the paradoxical desire to break violently free from affectionate, if complacent, roots. This is the (mostly internal) conflict that has wannabe writer Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn), valedictorian and presumably popular masturbation fantasy for her graduating class, sullenly stuck in her recently divorced parents’ house, passing time by deodorizing shoes at a local bowling alley and perusing Walter Percy while dreaming of collegiate stimulation. It’s not quite the modestly self-atrophied slackerdom it first appears, of course; Sunny’s dazed, chicken-necked father (Marc Petersen) is rapidly deteriorating from cancer, and she’s started a half-heartedly romantic relationship with Neal (Kevin Wheatley), a ruddy-faced Tyke Kwon Do-teaching friend from senior year. These details are teased out gently in the film’s talkative first act, with only ennui-glazed facial expressions and a conspicuous touch of magical realism (Sunny bowls a perfect game on her virgin attempt) suggestive of the unspoken, underlying tension; it’s as though writer-director Brett Haley is lulling us into accepting, and thereby empathizing with, the same lotophagous logic that enslaves his protagonist to mediocrity. But the following plot saunters from one typical twentysomething malaise to the next, unconcerned with excavating the messy but instructive emotional gnarl that might feed Sunny’s surface indecisiveness and disappointment.
The fact that we sense this gnarl at all, however, implies the conservative force of Dunn’s performance, a riff on the aches of nascent adulthood that’s intriguingly distinct from her more mercurial role in Cold Weather. Here, the problematic script seems to have fashioned her character as a distaff Garden State-era Zach Braff (she even awkwardly converses with her ailing, bath-robed father beside the refrigerator), but her methodically pensive mope act welcomes more teeth-sinking skepticism than that. (It’s also thankfully impervious to Haley’s underwritten love interests, such as the skinny, goateed stand-up comedian who causes Sunny to doubt her feelings for Neal by virtue of his cellphone’s New York area code alone.)
When Sunny diligently cooks her thankful father breakfast, or listens to her dead-end boyfriend talk of their Jane Austen-catalyzed courtship, Dunn’s demeanor seems uniquely stranded at the intersection of apathy and duty; she bears the weary, if not entirely uncheerful, marks of a woman limply flinging herself through events that hardly deserve a spiritedly, carpe diem determination. And as Sunny’s man-conundrum slowly awakens her social confidence, the metamorphosis is largely gestural: At the start she’s barhopping with cleavage-baring friends in a charcoal gym sweater, but by the film’s conclusion she can maximize the sex appeal of a jean snap.
While Dunn is often rewarding to watch, however, her mindful acting only partially redeems the film’s “meh”-inducing monotone. Despite essaying a fiercely fractured sort of populism, particularly with over-baked hints of economic hardship (unpaid bills, rundown eateries), the small-town, Floridian milieu is never properly defined (is the state really so micro-climated as to feature both autumnally deepening leaves and bright, clear beach days in the dead of December?). And the rounded, rosewood reverb of the soundtrack’s “Urge for Going”-like open tuned guitar filler complements the burnt green and grained brown color scheme so well that even the neon-y bowling alley begins to feel like a Crate and Barrel.
To be sure, Haley’s refusal to succumb to easy-peezy “let’s just improvise and enjoy the ride” falsehoods at the denouement is indicative of a maturity that’s curiously absent from the film. He’s at least aware that life won’t simply congeal after a single, unspeakably difficult decision is made, the gratingly sophomoric sexuality of his youth-speak aside (Sunny’s friend dreams of finding disembodied vaginas—surely she must mean vulvas?—scattered along the Florida coast). But intermittent perspicacity isn’t enough to redeem the indie genre fealty of The New Year; this is only the cliché-pocked tip of the real contemporary pre-career woe-berg.