|Cristin Miloti and Mark Rendall in The Year of the Carnivore, opening Friday in Toronto.
Here’s one surprising thing about the quirky (to say the least) romantic comedy The Year of the Carnivore, artistic multitasker Sook-Yin Lee’s directorial debut.
The decidedly non-mainstream Lee has managed to set her movie in Hollywood’s Planet Romcom, where people wear underwear while having sex and where sitting up in bed triggers a device that maintains the blanket somewhere around the shoulders.
This would not be so surprising in your average movie about a young woman’s quest to become sexually experienced. But Lee herself has shown no shyness about the human body, in Shortbus and in her self-directed turn in the Canadian anthology Toronto Stories.
Maybe explicitness would have been kind of a heavy element to introduce in a story so obviously meant to trip lightly over outrageous territory.
Like Juno with fewer laughs, The Year of the Carnivore centers on a young woman living just slightly askew from the world around her. The unfortunately named Sammy Smalls (Cristin Miloti) is on the short side, and walks with a limp — a legacy of cancer treatments she received as a child. A combination of overprotective parents (the somewhat-mugging Sheila McCarthy and Kevin McDonald) and leftover fear has rendered her insecure on several fronts — most notably sex, which she has never experienced.
Nonetheless, as the movie opens, she has recently made at least one leap towards independence by moving out and getting her own apartment.
We quickly find out two more things about her: She is in love with her boy best friend Eugene (Mark Rendall), a rock guitarist, and she has the incongruous job of store detective at a supermarket (her duties involving rooting out shoplifters who are then beaten to a pulp at the back of the store by the manager, played by Will Sasso.
The former frustrates her. The latter makes her feel socially guilty, since so many of the beat-ees are seniors, poor or both.
But the wheels of the plot revolve around a drunken night (drunkenness igniting a relationship is a popular romcom convention, but maybe one of the few that echoes reality). Vomiting leads to a less-than-successful experience in bed with Eugene, and an arrogant pronouncement that she is too inexperienced to be his lover.
Thus charged with a simple plot assignment, Hollywood would press the zany button. Lee, to her credit, throws some pretty nutty curveballs in Sammy’s experience quest (baby-sitter a trois, blackmail), but has them occur with a sort of innocent nonchalance that may seem to come from another planet. At least it’s not predictable.
All of it would be for naught but for the bang-on casting of Miloti as Sammy. With the mien of a young Sarah Silverman (but with a more neurotic persona), she maintains a heart-softening sympathy even through the movie’s most transgressive moments (and if you don’t think it’s transgressive, imagine this as a movie about a young man with a similar problem and imagine the “creep” factor).
All in all, there’s a sweetness to The Year of the Carnivore that survives its flaws. It is not successful as a comedy in the sense of there being a lot of laughs. But it is an interesting and different character portrait.
(This film is rated 18A)
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