by Ken Bakely
In a time when delayed coming-of-age tales about urban, white, creative twentysomethings from middle class backgrounds seems to have hit several consecutive saturation points, Noël Wells’ Mr. Roosevelt subverts our eyerolls by breaking down the presumed elements of its main character and genre tropes from the get-go. It’s about someone who has seemingly moved past the most shallow stages of fictitious development, pursuing indistinct dreams with meaningless self-pity dotting every line. Characters move away from their hometowns all the time at the end of similar movies, but what happens when they have to come back? When Emily (Wells) – an aspiring, Los Angeles-based entertainer – receives a call Eric (Nick Thune), her ex-boyfriend from back home in Austin, Texas, she drops everything and boards the first flight in an emotional panic. We don’t know what’s happened, only that it’s urgent and potentially devastating. The first call leads us to believe that a loved one is near death.
That would be correct, but the individual in question is her cat, Mr. Roosevelt. Left in the care of Eric when Emily moved away years ago, the development thrusts her back into her old home, forcing her to see how the space they once shared has been thoroughly altered, especially with Eric’s new girlfriend, the prim Celeste (Britt Lower). Emily grows frustrated with their Pinterest-esque artificiality, as the social media-savvy couple plans a cheerful brunch among their friends for the deceased pet. She explores the peripheries of her community and herself, meeting some local bohemians along the way, from the acerbic Jen (Daniella Pineda) to the laid-back Art (Andre Hyland).
Some encounters and friendships go better than others, but – say it with me, kids – it’s all part of a journey. Yet as clichéd as that sounds, Mr. Roosevelt both embraces and rejects the restrictions of its thematic familiarity. Its observational comedy is as sharp as can be in those confines. The movie immediately pushes Emily’s self-deprecation away as objectively inexplicable; the cold open depicts her auditioning for a project and delivering a hysterical impersonation of Holly Hunter at a yard sale. Wells, performing triple duty as writer, director, and star, forms a clear thesis of the character as an awkward victor. When Emily takes a heated phone call from her irate boss and quits a job that never had much of a definition to begin with, it’s a pivotal moment for someone who allows herself to start forming an identity separate from the boundaries she never felt the ability to escape.
After all, Emily’s a comedian whose peak fame thus far originated from an absurdist YouTube sketch that went viral thanks in part to pervy men leering at her figure. Life always seemed like it would be defined through single moments, by people who didn’t actually care for her. Wells gives Emily a chance at autonomy, and that feels like its own revolutionary act. She structures her film with a lovingly suspended pace, blurring the edges of the timeframe and replacing a temporal deadline with a locational sprawl. The Austin of her present is different from her past, and this means more than the subconscious shock she feels that her old house doesn’t look exactly like it used to. Each locale is uniquely photographed, alive in ever-changing ways. Mr. Roosevelt is focused on the idea that we’re in motion too, and explores the folly that comes from finding one hypothetical answer and chaining yourself to it, even when life’s metaphorical tornadoes keep blowing everything else around.
The death of the titular Mr. Roosevelt impacts Emily far beyond the realm of the basic grief of losing a pet, even a former one. If he no longer be a living sign of her life in progress, she asks, what is? The movie makes the case that such thinking contributes to her misery. When she objects to being described as “quirky,” and points out that such a term is never used when talking about men, it’s both a sign of the character’s inner-strength on a continual rise, and a filmmaker who can give even the most seemingly throwaway moments extra layers of meaning. Mr. Roosevelt is shot on 16mm, the fuzzy stock eschewing clean digital smoothness for another observation on mood. Film’s nostalgic grain puts images in a collective past. The decision to present this movie in that dynamic reminds us that even the events we’re seeing are points that will soon become memories for its characters. It’s as if Emily is remembering it all from years in the future, secure in the truth that everyone has been, currently is, and will always be on their own track.