Canadian actress and writer-director Sarah Polley makes a passionate return to relationships for her sophomore film but follows characters in her own thirty-something age bracket compared to her feature debut, 2006’s “Away from Her.” Ultimately honest, sensitive, and insightful, the indie relationship-in-free-fall drama “Take This Waltz” is sometimes a struggle when it comes to the characters and their personalities, but that most likely is the point. The film should resonate with audiences who can identify with the exciting highs and painful lows of a relationship, but should frustrate and divide them, too. One’s emotional investment will depend on whether or not you judge (or, for that matter, like) the characters. One thing is for sure: Polley never judges her characters.
By chance, while on assignment in Nova Scotia, drifting writer Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), a charming artist that drives a rickshaw. Flirting harmlessly, they share a section on their flight back to Toronto and then share a cab to their respective homes, realizing they’re neighbors. She points out that she’s married, which he responds to with “That’s too bad.” In her sexless, increasingly distant marriage of five years, Margot loves Lou (Seth Rogen), who writes chicken cookbooks for a living, but feels like she always has to work up courage to seduce her husband. With Daniel right across the street, she’s tempted to see him again, as her ambivalent feelings begin to threaten her present relationship.
From the onset, Margot is quirky and overly anxious. Daniel spots her at the airport in a wheelchair, and as it turns out, she’s just restless and afraid of connecting flights (“I’m afraid of being afraid,” she calls it). By the time Margot starts putting herself out there in front of Daniel, will she become even more afraid being in between two men? She’s also quite needy and emotionally premature. With Lou, Margot talks and behaves like a baby, one-upping each other in a game where they spout off phrases of endearment like “I love you so much I’m gonna put your spleen through a meat grinder.” They even lay in bed, goofily talking directly into each other’s eyeballs. Then with Daniel, she cusses and jokingly tells him that she hates him, as if they’re former flames rather than recent acquaintances. Such playfully childish behavior from these characters isn’t as real as Polley intended. Instead, it’s annoyingly cutesy and some of the dialogue feels “written.” If that’s not enough, none of the characters’ boho, exposed-brick living quarters make sense when the viewer stops and considers their means of income, or lack thereof, from the colorful jobs they work. It’s a small point, but not unreasonable.
Over afternoon martinis, Margot blushingly says she wants to know what Daniel would do to her. He tells her in a whispery, verbally explicit monologue, and it’s an intimiate moment, wrought with sexual tension, without either of them touching. There’s also a sweet moment where Margot and Daniel take in a dizzying ride on a carnival scrambler, playing The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which is later countered in the poetic, bittersweet final shot. There’s an amusing scene, where Margot and her sister-in-law take a water aerobics class with an over-the-top male instructor and Margot pees herself laughing (with a popcorn-eating Daniel surprising her in the stands) and the chemicals in the pool turn her urine blue, but tonally, it feels divorced from the rest of the film. This is followed by a frank community-shower scene, Williams, Silverman, and older women of all shapes and sizes “letting it all hang out.” Their full-frontal nudity is not sexualized or even made as a joke, but a conversation the women have, while washing, doesn’t so much spell out where the story is headed but thematically drops the hint that “new things get old.” Adding to the film’s overall modesty and naturalism is Luc Montpellier’s dreamy cinematography, capturing the heat and romantic longing of summer.
Across the board, performances are pitch-perfect. Long since she played Jen on TV’s “Dawson’s Creek” and paved her way as an excellent actress, Michelle Williams could read straight from the phone book for two hours and she’d somehow make it interesting. Her performance as Margot is just as emotionally raw and layered as her work in the marital tragedy “Blue Valentine”. Apparently unable to do wrong, Williams makes the role feel specific and lived-in, embodying every emotional beat of discontent and curiosity with her heart and soul. Although she flirts with temptation, planning a kiss with Daniel in thirty years, Margot is human after all. In the role of Lou, a less-doughy Seth Rogen is his solid, affable self, reigning in his comic instincts and getting the chance to really flex his dramatic acting muscles. Lou is a sweetheart, playfully tricking Margot by dumping a bucket of water on her head as she showers each morning, while she thinks their bathroom has an overhead leak. But he also tends to push Margot away, more interested in cooking chicken than having sex and sitting in silence during their anniversary dinner. As Daniel, Luke Kirby is in the trickiest spot, having to bring some sort of sympathy to “the other man,” but he pulls it off. Daniel knows what he wants, but respects Margot enough to not push. It doesn’t hurt that he’s sexy and charismatic, so it’s understandable why Margot could be tempted. The most impressive performance comes from Sarah Silverman, considering she’s only ever been known for her sharp tongue. Unexpectedly, she’s very credible and heartbreaking as Lou’s sister Geraldine, a recovering alcoholic. At a sobriety party Lou and Margot throw, Silverman delivers a speech not far off from the comedian’s own profane stand-up.
Throughout, Polley focuses more on the progression of her characters (and metaphorical lines of dialogue) to drive the story rather than plot, which is always the preferable choice. As the film bracingly doesn’t spell everything out or fall into melodrama, it’s telling of what Polley wants to maturely say about relationships and their honeymoon phases. Where will every character be left standing as individual people by the end? Polley generally answers that question, but pulls over the wool over our eyes and paints everything with complexity. Though flawed and often too indulgent for its own good, “Take This Waltz” is a lovely, truthful piece of melancholy that strikes a lingering chord, and assures that Sarah Polley is a genuine talent to watch. Her subtle, eloquent voice is evident all the way through.
In select theaters and available on Video On Demand.
116 min., rated R.
Grade: B +