Carrie Pilby (Bel Powley) is a very smart Brit living in New York City, a 19-year-old Harvard grad who’s hell-bent on rejecting everything that renders a girl attractive in a sexist society: gracefulness, gregariousness, helplessness, quietness, and romantic, if not sexual, availability. As a character, she indeed teems with feminist possibilities. She’s refreshingly strange, realistically anxious, and suspicious about the concept of happiness. She reads Foucault and Kierkegaard, and rebuffs men’s tendency for sugarcoated catcalling. But Carrie Pilby, director Susan Johnson’s adaptation of Caren Lissner’s best-selling novel, crafts Carrie’s virtuosity only to beat her down like a piñata. In the world of the film, female intelligence is always excessive and feminine rejection of gender norms is inevitably pathological. The film is essentially an exercise in forcing a female genius back into her proper place of dependence on both the father figure and the Prince Charming.
Most of Carrie’s time is spent complaining about life to her patronizing therapist, Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane), who gives her a list of steps to take in order to be happy, which includes buying a gold fish to take care of (in lieu of a baby) and going out on a date. Throughout, Carrie is treated like a child who’s too book smart to know that she should instead be a mother—or, at the very least, a girlfriend. Constantly fetishized and ridiculed for declining to dial back her smarts, she’s even held responsible for repairing her daddy issues, though it’s her father (Gabriel Byrne) who’s emotionally unavailable and more interested in building a family with someone else.
In Carrie Pilby, people find dates though personal ads in print newspapers, cheating is the worst possible sin, and guys are completely capable of being brilliant without letting their talents compromise their social skills. Carrie, resorting to the newspaper to try and cross items off the happiness list her therapist provides her, ends up smitten by her neighbor, Cy (William Moseley), a quirky character fond of playing a quirky musical instrument on Carrie’s quirky fire escape. While it’s good for girls to actively search for love no matter how likely men are to be jerks to them (the guy she meets through one personal ad is cheating on his fiancée), the film seems to say that the best way of fixing women’s problems, like their propensity for hysteric complaints, is to make oneself accessible to an unaccounted-for husband-material type of guy who isn’t held back by feminine neuroses. Someone like Cy, also a genius and an over-achiever like Carrie, but in great contrast, not constantly performing his awesomeness. Instead, he’s a closet Berkley grad who also keeps his job as a New York Philharmonic musician humbly as a secret—with the dignity of a superhero. He can handle his gifts and tame his superpowers, whereas Carrie is portrayed as completely unfit to handle greatness.
Carrie Pilby becomes cringe-inducingly cheesy as Carrie crosses off items on Dr. Petrov’s bucket list to happiness. The film is also marred by completely unnecessary subplots involving one of Carrie’s former professors, Harrison (Colin O’Donoghue), and Mr. Pilby hiding his upcoming new marriage in London from his own daughter. Throughout, the drama feels forced and the dialogue silly, with the plot increasingly resembling that of a Hallmark Channel Christmas special, an impression amplified by the way sappy piano notes wash over every other scene. By the time Carrie’s father flies to New York to save her from becoming a botched and bitter (single) woman for life and punches Professor Harrison in the face because he never returned Carrie’s copy of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, the film’s message is clear: Girls with books just ruin everything.