Each generation experiences “coming of age” a bit differently, with common miscues and lessons transcending whatever shifts in perspective occur over the years. Call it the predictability of human fallibility. These conventions make us sigh with disappointment when lust overwhelms true love and smile enthusiastically when wisdom vanquishes selfishness. Whether it’s something classy (Jane Eyre) or something trashy (Gossip Girl), broken hearts, dead pets, betrayed friends, and angst-ridden fears have universal ramifications that resonate beyond time periods, and the originality of the situation comes from the context rather than anything thematic.
Lawrence Michael Levine’s rigidly independent Gabi On the Roof in July presents these familiar elements within a fragmented, pensive view of 21st-century young adulthood, building a present-day New York City out of hazy skylines, cramped gallery spaces, and comfy apartments of hipsters in stasis. This is a fantasy world where fledgling artists, deadbeat drifters, and undergraduate femmes engage in daily hangout sessions that invariably lead to week-long flights of fancy, reality always drifting on the horizon waiting to crash the party. The many prolonged character interactions, usually heightened by large amounts of alcohol and drugs, are precursors to bubble-bursting moments of emotional upheaval. But unlike the distilled sacrificial whining of Tiny Furniture, Levine’s film taps into an honest vulnerability these characters continually try hard to repress.
In one of the longest credit sequences in recent memory, 20-year-old Gabi (Sophia Takal) arrives without salutation to her older brother Sam’s (Levine) small empty urban apartment, beginning a long timeline of disappointment that will permeate over the course her summer vacation. Both instigator and wakeup call, Gabi enters Sam’s world rife with pretentious ideas about art and life, unwilling to compromise her faux-feminist judgment toward people living in the “real world.” While Sam tries to reconcile a failing relationship with Madeline (Brooke Bloom) and the reemergence of old flame Chelsea (Amy Seimetz), Gabi spends most of her time not on the roof, but inside with her friend Dory (Kate Lyn Sheil) and older lothario Garrett (Louis Cancelimi). Their “art projects” together perfectly formulate a youthful exuberance to improvisation and excitement.
Gabi on the Roof in July projects its transparent character flaws far in advance, but the actual betrayals aren’t what make this film interesting. It’s the way that Levine stages the incredibly lengthy confrontations between characters after the fact that indelibly connects theme with evolving patterns of personality. On a weekend getaway with friends, Madeline and Sam engage in a devastating cat-and-mouse war of words on the porch of a country home, the silence of nature only amplifying their razor-sharp whispers. Later, when Gabi sees Garrett at a party with another girl, her free-spirit attitude becomes challenged, illuminating a groundswell of disappointment the viewer didn’t even know was there.
Despite these complex scenes, Levine harbors a strange distrust of his own ambition. Lines like “you’re wearing the universe between your legs” and “I just think it’s lame the way art and life are separate” dumb down increasingly tense moments, amplifying the absurdity of reactions rather than the obvious pain trying to be expressed. These characters, Sam and Gabi in particular, are swimming in a fishbowl of their own making, sectioned off by learnt emotional disabilities and preconceived notions. Levine’s coup de grace between the siblings speaks to the film’s failure to destroy these barriers, as rampant silliness once again overrides the serious consequences of Sam’s infidelity and Gabi’s promiscuity.
While not as overtly annoying as certain NYC-set mumblecore entries, Gabi on the Roof in July does occasionally grate the nerves by the time brother and sister figure it all out. The pieces to the puzzle are there, but a steady mixture of passive-aggressive cynicism and unearned togetherness mark Levine’s film with a dark streak of indulgence. In a film that finds beauty and truth in silent pauses, the constant yelling and crying ends up drowning out what matters most, leaving us wondering if anybody has come of age at all.