Socially Modern Millie
You’d think that a cookout would be relaxing. You’d think that, but not so much. As we arrive, I shake hands (are my palms sweaty?) with my friends (are these people really my friends? they like my wife better.) and relax for a moment when I nab a lemonade. Everyone is clustered in small groups. I edge over to one and listen to two dads talk about summer jobs (should I have forced my kid to get a summer job?) their kids have and the vacations (will my kid resent me since we can’t afford two vacations per year?) they have taken. That’s the first ten minutes, and things go downhill from there.
That’s a taste of what anxiety feels like. Ninety-five percent of the time it’s manageable for me, and I’ve become adept at bullshitting my way through social situations. The other five percent…well, I get “sick” occasionally, so what are you gonna do? As best I can figure, my anxiety is on the mild side, which is kind of a blessing. Why? I’m friendly with someone who has such profound anxiety, it’s a struggle for them to leave their apartment.
The conversation around mental health is growing, and, as usual, the arts are on the forefront of that conversation. While some people behave as if mental illness is a new and baffling phenomenon,* more of us talk about it since it’s become more socially acceptable to bring up. So much so that we can recognize it’s funny…until it stops being funny. That’s the premise of Millie Lies Low, a perceptive dramedy from New Zealand that’s definitely worth your time.
As she hears the THUNK of the plane door closing, Millie (Ana Scotney) needs to get out. Immediately if not sooner. The flight crew tries to calm her, but it’s to no avail. When we next see her, she’s in the airport, and a flight to New York City is leaving without her. This is only the beginning of a suboptimal situation for her.
You see, Millie has just graduated from architecture school. She’s earned a prestigious internship at an architecture firm in New York City. Well…”earned” might not be quite the right word as she may have plagiarized her design, but no need to dwell on that niggling little detail. The point is, she’s off on an amazing and life-changing adventure.
Only she isn’t. The airline won’t refund her for the flight she didn’t take. Booking a new flight costs more than she’s got. Millie has three options.
- Contact the internship, tell them about her issue, and try to reschedule her arrival.
- Cancel the internship and spend some time in treatment.
Millie chooses the third option, which is to fake her trip to the Big Apple on Instagram. To do that, she’ll have to deceive her quasi-boyfriend Henry (Chris Alosio), her best friend Carolyn (Jillian Nguyen), and her mother (Rachel House). Should be easy, right?
Years ago, director Michelle Savill had a short film in competition at a festival. A mistake was made and she missed her flight. Regarding that moment, she mentioned, “My embarrassment was such that I seriously considered hiding out for three weeks pretending to be in France.” Savill knows how it feels, the desperate lying and scheming brought on by humiliation, and she applies that perspective to the feel of Millie Lies Low. Scenes run slightly too long, but too long in the right way. We watch Millie spinning a half truth, then a whole untruth, and by the time she’s gotten to a double untruth, we wonder if the person she’s dealing with believes her.
The screenplay by Savill and Eli Kent doesn’t go full cringe comedy, and it doesn’t reach the heights of insanity like I Think You Should Leave or Veep. It doesn’t need to, and while it’s still funny, it’s more subtle than that. Kent and Savill are more interested in drilling into the psyche of a person who chooses to hide from difficult situations. Millie does that by spinning a web of falsehoods, by copying ideas and concepts from others, and by neither embracing her Filipino heritage nor her New Zealand upbringing. It all stems from enormous anxiety, and the screenplay wisely shows us what we need to know without straight up telling us everything.
The tricky part about a role like Millie is that it needs to be played just so. Played too broadly and Millie looks like a scumbag. Played too close to the vest and the audience has no idea about her motivations. Ana Scotney threads the needle nicely with her challenging role. She’s able to effectively sell comedy and drama in equal measure. More impressive is her non-verbal acting. With just the right facial expressions and body language, she shows what she’s thinking and the fiction she’s desperately spinning. Below that, she portrays the anxiety Millie deals with by not dealing with it. It’s a star-making performance, and if there’s any justice in the world, Scotney is going to enjoy a long career.
If you’ve ever had to psych yourself up before a gathering, had an internal debate before answering the phone, or been tempted to create a story instead of admitting weakness, Millie Lies Low will be a movie you can hang with. Perceptive writing, smart direction, and a finely calibrated performance make this a cinematic jewel to remember. In fact, I think I’ll blow off the next cookout and watch it again.
*A reminder that Abraham Lincoln suffered from serious anxiety and depression. During the Civil War, no less.