Inspired by her home town of Inverness and the high suicide rate in the Highlands, Karen Gillan’s The Party’s Just Beginning (which had its world premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival at the weekend) is the sort of leftfield directorial debut that makes frustratingly tough work of tricky material.
The Party’s Just Beginning **
Casting herself as Luisaidh, a supermarket worker numbed by the suicide of her best friend, her parents’ moribund marriage and her own existential ennui, she’s made a film that nods to the introspection of Morvern Callar and the stylistic brashness of Trainspotting, yet blunts any edginess with random moments of Brit-com naffness, contrived plotting, underdeveloped supporting characters and an over-reliance on arthouse clichés.
Chief among the latter is Luisaidh’s addiction to casual, often brutal, sex with strangers, an off-the-peg cinematic signifier of a beautiful woman damaged by trauma that Gillan puts a peculiarly Scottish spin on by having her character stuff her face with chips after every back-alley or pub-toilet encounter. Luisaidh is grieving the loss of her best friend, whose suicide we see early on in hallucinatory flash-back, but whose own struggles with his sexuality, gender identity, junkie father and repressed Christian boyfriend the film attempts to untangle as the narrative jumps confusingly between the past and the present.
The tragic LGBT best friend is another cinematic cliché, of course, but at least the scenes between Gillan and Matthew Beard’s Alistair demonstrate her strength as both director and actor, capturing the easygoing camaraderie and tender intimacies true friendship can elicit with a looseness and naturalness absent from the rest of the film. That isn’t to say the rest of the film doesn’t have its merits: Gillan crafts some compelling visuals and frequently composes her frames in ways that subtly reinforce her characters’ isolation. But it’s also very undisciplined and inconsistent. The film’s aspect ratio changes throughout for no discernible reason; an early scene in which Luisaidh witnesses a neighbour committing suicide is quickly forgotten; and the frequent never-explained sight of a naked man in another neighbour’s garden just seems like the kind of quirky visual gag you’d find in a Richard Curtis movie.
The present-day scenes are also unconvincingly plotted. Becoming a sort of magnet for suicidal men, Luisaidh finds herself counselling a depressed elderly widow who repeatedly calls her home number by mistake. Gillan must surely know that crisis hotlines tend not to resemble residential phone numbers for this very reason, so it just feels like a convenient way for the film to explicate its themes, which in turn cheapens the seriousness of its treatment of mental illness. Ditto the relationship Luisaidh enters into with Lee Pace’s Dale, a Londoner hanging around Inverness for vaguely defined reasons that aren’t sufficiently explored to justify his own half-hearted suicidal tendencies.
In the end, Gillan’s throwing-stuff-against-the-wall approach makes it feel like a well-funded student film with an A-list cast and above-average production values. There’s promise, to be sure, just no pay-off.