Film Review: Carrie Pilby

Trite and cutesy coming-of-age tale about a super-intelligent young woman who learns a life lesson through taking chances. Purgatory.
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I was clearly fidgeting throughout most of Carrie Pilby and thus arguably opening myself up to a conversation. Following a recent screening, the woman seated directly behind me—who was even more agitated than I was—asked if I was going to be writing about this film.

When I said yes, she shook her head, her expression awash in incredulity, distaste and pity. She then launched into her own enraged critique focusing on the lack of feminist elements in the movie, starting with the fact that the title character has neither women friends nor mentors.

I nodded benignly, though I don’t remotely believe a film needs to check off feminism to be of value. Either way, that criticism presupposes some small investment in the story. I had none. A far more valid charge voiced by my new pal was the movie’s absurd and false image of a high-IQ young woman.

Besides spewing forth arcane factoids of no consequence, Carrie (Bel Powley) prattles on and on about first editions. The problem is she wouldn’t know the difference between a first edition and a slice of pizza. The casting is way off—in all fairness, Powley was impressive in The Diary of a Teenage Girl—but the primary culprit is the character (and by extension the whole script) as written by Kara Holden and directed by first-timer Susan Johnson.

Based on Caren Lissner's young-adult novel Carrie Pilby tells the story of a 19-year-old British-born prodigy who has already graduated from Harvard and is now living in New York City (beneficiary of a trust fund or some other cushy financial family arrangement), feeling freakish, isolated and rudderless. Among other anxieties, Carrie’s mother died a number of years earlier and her British-based dad (Gabriel Byrne) has remarried and largely ignores Carrie. Instead, he has arranged for her to visit a psychiatrist, Dr. Petrov (Nathan Lane)—who also happens to be a close family friend—for guidance. The compassionate doctor assigns Carrie a list of activities including “obtaining a pet,” “making a friend” and “going on a date,” all in an effort to get her out of her shell. And guess what? She does.

She also finds a job as a proofreader at a law firm on the graveyard shift and along the way meets “kooky New York characters,” all of whom are brainy lost souls. There’s the philandering MIT grad (Jason Ritter) and the music nerd (William Moseley) next door. They’re not equally well-intentioned. She learns the difference.

The banality is worthy of a Dr. Phil. More off-putting is the triangular relationship of the doctor, dad and Carrie. It’s almost as if Petrov and Carrie’s father are in cahoots somehow. On the flip side, Carrie feels free to ask the doctor all kinds of personal questions about his life, which he answers. None of it rings true.

Worse still is the pervasive cuteness. On her journey to mental health, Carrie acquires two goldfish named Katharine and Spencer (wouldn’t you know?) She reads that if one fish dies, the other will expire in short order. So after Spencer goes belly up (literally), she frantically returns Katharine to the pet store, dumping it into an aquarium overflowing with other goldfish. It’s an adorable attempt—or allegedly so—to extend Katharine’s longevity. (It’s never entirely clear how she’s determined the gender of either fish.)

And in what era is this story set? It’s obviously not the present, since no one uses computers or cellphones. Carrie’s favorite book is J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, which might have some plausibility if it weren’t half a century out of synch. But nothing feels quite as dated as Carrie’s relationship with a bastard professor (Colin O’Donoghue)—the story is interspersed with flashbacks of her student years at Harvard—who has no fear that he will lose his job thanks to his sexual trysts with an undergraduate. “Inappropriate” has not yet entered the popular lexicography. If it’s 1968 or 1972, why not say so?

Still, there are some high points, most notably the vivid street scenes and spacious, well-appointed, mid-century modern New York apartments (compliments of production designer Curt Beech) that the characters occupy.

Even the woman sitting behind me—though still infuriated by the lack of feminist values in the film—conceded that the homes were fun for house hobbyists. That said, she wanted me to know that many in the audience, including herself, were friends of the filmmakers and had been invited to laugh and applaud. Some friend.

But as this magazine’s editor rightly pointed out, “Friendship does have its limits.” With this movie as the testing ground, he couldn’t have been more spot-on.

Click here for cast and crew information.