Getting lost isn’t always a bad thing. It can be a path to self-discovery, to new connections, to a break from the suffocating minutiae of everyday life. It can also result in some enthralling storytelling. Adapted by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight from her own novel, The Sunlit Night seeks to offer as much through the fish-out-of-water story of a young woman searching for the space (literal and figurative) to grow as an artist. Unfortunately, everything engaging about the narrative is overshadowed by gratuitous quirkiness.
Frances (Jenny Slate) is a twentysomething painter who can’t seem to gain any sort of foothold in her professional or personal life. Her work is deemed lazy and derivative by the stuffed shirts of the art world, and her boyfriend dumps her during an intimate visit to his lake house. Seeking some modicum of comfort, Frances returns to her seriously cramped childhood home, only to be informed by her bickering parents (David Paymer and Jessica Hecht) that they’re separating. Eager to escape, the young painter accepts an unappealing job as the assistant to a crotchety artist named Nils (Fridtjov Såheim) in Norway’s rural Lofoten Islands, where the summer sun illuminates the sky for up to 24 hours and a baby goat breaking into one’s humble camper is a normal occurrence. Far from her crumbling life in Manhattan, Frances is presented with an intriguing opportunity to evolve outside of the limiting world she has always known, even if her sole responsibility is painting a massive barn.
Meanwhile, another young New York transplant, Yasha (Alex Sharp), arrives at Lofoton to bury his father, a Russian immigrant whose last wish was to retire there. In a twist of seriously convoluted fate, Yasha’s path crosses with Frances’ and the two manage to glean some sort of connection from their few strained conversations. Perhaps the romantic ties that bind are stronger in the source material (an increasingly uncomfortable thought, given that Yasha is 17 years old in the novel whereas Frances is in her 20s), but the pair’s relationship only comes across as tenuous and wildly convenient. There is nothing particularly distinct about Yasha outside of his grief and his mother (played by Gillian Anderson, trying on a curious Russian accent), so we’re left with the fool’s errand of looking for chemistry—any chemistry—that might justify this odd distraction from Frances’ journey.
With the right material, Slate can surely carry a story on her own. Most of her performances benefit from her immutable charm, and The Sunlit Night is no exception: As Frances, she nails the sort of wide-eyed, gung-ho enthusiasm that can enliven such a muted, bucolic setting. But even Slate’s brand of magnetism isn’t enough to prevent the other characters from either receding to the background or looking like unnecessary caricatures. Chief among the latter is Haldor (Zach Galifianakis), a passionate viking cosplayer from Cincinnati who works at a nearby museum. It’s unclear what he adds to the story aside from an excuse to insert the Hangover star in some fashion. Next to Slate’s buoyant authenticity, his presence rings false. (And no, it’s never explained why all these Americans are drawn to the exact same random place.)
The most interesting interactions happen between Frances and her family; while it’s clear that they are mere vessels of chaos meant to drive our protagonist far, far away, Paymer and Hecht bring more energy and texture in their mere moments on screen than anyone else. Otherwise, the best work comes from Slate and from cinematographer Martin Ahlgren, who captures Norway’s idyllic coastal scene gorgeously, even at its grayest.
Perhaps the biggest letdown here is that we never discover who Frances is beyond Frances The Artist, an identity that is repeatedly emphasized with flashes of artwork meant to illustrate her pithy observations (like the thought that Yasha looks like Caravaggio’s “Boy With A Basket Of Fruit”)—a stylistic device that slides from clever to stale with every new deployment. Despite its sprawling scenery and ostensibly adventurous premise, The Sunlit Night feels as uncomfortably cluttered as its heroine’s childhood home, with no room to breathe or grow among the half-formed, ill-connected plot points.