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Posted: 9:33 a.m. Sunday, March 9, 2014

SXSW capsule review: 'Wild Canaries' 



By Matt Shiverdecker

With his second feature-length film, writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine has crafted a contemporary comedy unlike any that I've ever seen before. Online, the film has already been dubbed "mumble-noir", which is at once a ridiculous and sublime description. 

Combining elements of screwball romantic comedies with a murder whodunit, "Wild Canaries" introduces us to a Brooklyn couple named Barri (Sophia Takal) and Noah (played by Levine himself). They are an odd match - he's about ten years older than her and yet often more immature. He's been in a serious relationship before wherein his girlfriend has left him for another woman, so there is an insecurity under the surface that always seems ready to burst. 

Barri is a free spirit, to put it politely. She has frequent arguments with her fiancé about staying out late drinking and gambling with his friends, but mostly dreams of opening up a resort in the Catskills. When their elderly downstairs neighbor Sylvia dies, Barri is immediately suspicious of Sylvia's son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) and begins to suspect foul play. On her quest to gather proof of her theory, she starts breaking into apartments and donning oversized hats and glasses for spy missions. 

Another downstairs neighbor, Damien (Jason Ritter), is an artist and the owner of the apartment building. Before long, Barri is convinced there is a conspiracy at foot and that Damien just may be involved as well. She slips into full-on Nancy Drew mode to try to solve the case. Takal, baring an uncanny resemblance to Anna Kendrick, steals the movie. Even when the character's actions are outrageously beyond the realm of what any normal person might do, she sells the passion and quest for what she truly believes is the truth. Barri enlists her friend and roommate Jean (the delightful Alia Shawkat) to help her sleuthing to solve what she legitimately believes was Sylvia's murder.

As she adds in Noah for additional reconnaissance, the comedy is heightened but the tone also begins to turner darker when it becomes clear that her crazy theories might actually be headed in the right direction. There are moments where I honestly thought that it was slipping into Scooby-Doo territory, so it was a relief to see that wasn't accidental - it's a specific reference made in the press notes. 

Levine and Takal have a great chemistry on screen, not entirely surprising as they're actually married in real life. To the credit of all involved, you would never know that the film was shot on a limited budget. The widescreen cinematography captures the vibrancy of Brooklyn, starting off with handheld camera work and opening up to a more sophisticated look as the action begins to unfold. 

The film's frenetic "spy verses spy" energy comes and goes in waves, but the audience followed its path with great enjoyment. One can only hope that Levine and Takal's partnership will continue to pay off with more quirky collaborations like this. 

"Wild Canaries" screens again tonight at 9:30 p.m. at the Rollins Theatre and also at the Alamo Ritz at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday night. 

 
 

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