REVIEW: The Nowhere Inn [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 91 minutes
    Release Date: September 17th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Bill Benz
    Writer(s): Carrie Brownstein & St. Vincent

We’re in this together.

Much like their fictional counterparts on-screen, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) and Carrie Brownstein did plan on crafting a documentary about the former’s music career. Along the way, however, they found themselves diving deeper and deeper into conversations about what form it might take. They didn’t want to fall prey to conventions or artifice. Nor did they condone pretending life off-stage was some wild, hedonistic experience simply because that’s what the audience expected (or wanted). Ideas to prevent cliché ultimately skewed towards mockumentary and they didn’t want that either. So they kept tinkering until deciding to just render the whole thing fake. They’d concoct a scripted descent through art, anxiety, authenticity, and id to bring the past few years’ philosophical quandaries to life via a completely controlled environment.

The result is The Nowhere Inn. The real-life friends wrote and star with Bill Benz—Brownstein’s collaborator on “Portlandia”—coming on-board to direct them through the ever-escalating chaos as truth passes through the looking glass and flips reality on its head. And there’s honestly no better superstar to have at its center than Clark considering her life outside of her music is private. Her use of a stage persona adds to the fractured nature of her identity and allows her to ultimately become anonymous enough to frustrate outsiders. Whether a limo driver brazenly asking how she can be famous if he’s never heard of her or Brownstein herself wondering how life on the road with rock stars can be so boring, preconceptions are being intentionally torn to shreds.

More confusion is added thanks to a shifting series of vantage points. Sometimes we’re watching the footage Brownstein shoots as director of the film within the film. Sometimes we find ourselves transported into the room to see the in-film camera operator and experience the mounting irritation from all parties involved as the project begins to fall apart. Sometimes we get vignettes of the concerts (which are always top-notch), “old” home videos of Clark and Brownstein discussing success and failure, and even some fourth wall breaking moments where St. Vincent takes over to omnisciently narrate her take on why the embedded documentary never came to fruition (with everything else rendered flashback in the process). It’s layers upon layers of cinematic intrigue dismantled, reassembled, and manipulated for maximum sensory impact.

And it’s entertaining for the most part. The subversion of generic rock-n-roll docs capturing hard living and criminal antics is comedic gold at the beginning thanks to Clark and her bandmates—real (Toko Yasuda) and fake alike (Chris Aquilino and Drew Connick)—providing dead-pan deliveries for their calm, drama-free existence off-stage. The switch to psychological thriller once Clark’s genuinely “nice” persona is exploited to the point where she’s finally ready to let St. Vincent out 24/7 is entertaining too because of how quickly that devolution goes from being everything Brownstein asked for (spicing things up) to becoming so utterly stripped of fact that she no longer knows who she’s filming anymore. Unfortunately, there isn’t really anywhere else to go afterwards beyond the slow burn repetition of that theme.

Intrigue eventually moves from Clark completely to shine a light on Brownstein’s own increasingly transparent insecurities. Here she is a rock star (Sleater Kinney) and actor/writer (“Portlandia”) in her own right and yet everyone is buzzing about this directing gig as though it’s the first “cool” thing she’s done. Her father (Michael Bofshever) might be dying on the periphery and yet his excitement for her finally doing what she was “born to do” has him insisting she stay on tour so he can watch the finished piece once he’s on the mend. It’s all just added pressure piled on top of the job itself—one that threatens to implode when she realizes she’s better off making a concert documentary and inevitably does when Clark goes off the reservation.

Where things go (bringing in Dakota Johnson as a love interest and a sprawling southern “family” to rewrite Clark’s history) is effective despite also unfolding at a glacial pace. Every new scene does add a little bit more to the whole, but my investment started waning around halfway through upon realizing those little bits took a long time to manifest. It’s not until the very end as the world constructed starts to collapse in on itself with even more surrealistic insanity than before that I found myself perking back up. Waiting that long makes it all seem too safe when compared with the film’s uniquely rebellious premise, though. What originally appeared to be pretention turned upside down gradually reveals itself to be just as pretentious as its target.

The Nowhere Inn remains a captivatingly inventive meta-narrative spin on genre and celebrity, nonetheless. It delivers great music (the title track is wonderful), legitimate laughs, and some of the best self-skewering parody I’ve seen in a while (Clark must have had a blast leaning into the on-screen St. Vincent’s cutthroat ego and ambivalence). My only real gripe is that it’s too long to sustain itself. Keep the content the same while shaving off ten-to-twenty minutes and the apprehension and dread is suddenly able to get under our skin. As it is now, we can intellectually appreciate those emotions, but never quite feel them wash over us as we crawl to eventual payoffs rather than run. The conceit is so daring that each lull inherently undercuts its potential boldness.

[1] St. Vincent as herself and Carrie Brownstein as herself in Bill Benz’s ‘THE NOWHERE INN.’ Courtesy of IFC Films.
[2] St. Vincent as herself in Bill Benz’s ‘THE NOWHERE INN.’ Courtesy of IFC Films.
[3] St. Vincent as herself in Bill Benz’s ‘THE NOWHERE INN.’ Courtesy of IFC Films.

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