Sundance 2019: The Sunlit Night

Jenny Slate appears in The Sunlit Night by David Wnendt, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Eirik Evjen.

The Sunlit Night frustratingly blends together two very different stories that don’t quite work together for taking place in a single feature film.

Frances (Jenny Slate) could have had an excellent painter’s residency.  Unfortunately for her, she passes up the opportunity in order to travel with her boyfriend, Robert, to Japan.  Her plans soon become moot when Robert breaks up with her on vacation.  Forced back home without a choice, it becomes a comedy of errors with all sorts of chaos ensuing.  Her parents, Levi (David Paymer) and Mirela (Jessica Hecht), are looking at a divorce.  Meanwhile, younger sister Gaby (Elise Kibler) is engaged to a man that her father despises.

Frances is running out of options.  Her parents’ looming divorce means not having much space to work.  The alternative would be finding any sort of apprenticeship that she can get.  This means having to travel to a Norwegian island for the sole purpose of painting a barn in yellow.  All because Nils (Fridtjov Såheim) wants to get on the map.  Painting the barn helps to give Frances some meaning in life but the film isn’t solely about her.  This is because half the film is as much about Yasha (Alex Sharp) and his father, Vassily (Olek Krupa), as it is about her.

Yasha and his dad spent the last decade running a bakery.  Unfortunately, Yasha’s mother, Olyana (Gillian Anderson), ran out on them and never looked back.  With his dad’s health not looking great, he wants a new life for the two in Lapland.  It’s on this trip where Frances and Yasha’s journey’s intersect.

Jenny Slate’s performance as an artist on the run to find herself is fine but this film doesn’t even come close to what we saw from here in Obvious Child.  Meanwhile, Zach Galifianakis takes on a fish-out-of-water role as a Viking reenactor, Haldor.  There’s a lot of potential here for the zany antics that we’re used to seeing from The Hangover actor.  In that regard, this role is a real missed opportunity.  He may be toning it down a few notches for the best interest of the film but that’s about it.  The comedy is at its finest when David Paymer is on screen.

Rebecca Dinerstein’s screenplay tries to tell two very different stories.  Much to the film’s dismay, it doesn’t work.  The fact that they don’t even interact with each other until somewhere in the second act is all the more frustrating.  The Sunlit Night could be more captivating–or compelling for that matter–with a focus on one story more than the other.  Hell, I’d have taken ‘s hitchhiking in the second act without knowing his background.

The Sunlit Night could have been a better film if they had only decided to focus Frances’ family and their issues rather than her traveling to Norway.

DIRECTOR:  David Wnendt
SCREENWRITER:  Rebecca Dinerstein
CAST:  Jenny Slate, Alex Sharp, Fridtjov Såheim, David Paymer, with Gillian Anderson and Zach Galifianakis

The Sunlit Night held its world premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. Grade: 2.5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.