It’s received wisdom that people don’t go to the movies en masse over Labor Day weekend, especially not the way they flock to theaters over Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Maybe it’s true that back-to-school concerns eclipse interest in going out to movie theaters (although looming classroom time doesn’t seem like it has much effect on any other weekend), but it’s more true that studios and distributors lean right in to the notion that no one wants to see anything but last month’s leftovers, sometimes opting not to properly release movies even when they have movies to release. This year sees the release of two modest but satisfying genre-based pleasures that their respective studios aren’t just keeping audiences from seeing (through limited releases); they’re also keeping them from hearing much about them through press embargos that don’t lift until the movies are practically in theaters.
If you haven’t heard of The Little Stranger, this may be why. It’s director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow-up to his acclaimed/awarded movie Room, based on another well-received novel, and it’s a kind of ghost story, though admittedly it doesn’t offer as much in the way of jump-scares or freak-outs. The trailer sells it as a straight up haunted house movie, and maybe that’s why the studio didn’t want anyone talking about it ahead of time (though a 500-screen release doesn’t seem like an elaborate plan to fleece horror fans, either). Its literary roots show, with a novelistic attention to character details as it follows Faraday (Domhnnall Gleeson), a doctor from modest background, as he befriends an upper-class family who has fallen on hard times in post-war England. Nominal head of the family Roderick (Will Poulter) is heavily scarred from the war, and responsibilities have fallen to his dour sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson, as good as I’ve ever seen her). The family is also haunted—literally or figuratively?—by the childhood death of another sibling.
The Little Stranger is more creepy than scary. It’s not just a lack of sheer horror; many of its scenes aren’t even traditionally dread-infused or gothic-looking (despite a gothic-leaning plot). A lot of it even takes place in broad daylight, or at least an overcast, English version of broad daylight. But Abrahamson uses some horror-movie techniques—floaty following shots, shallow-focus close-ups to keep objects out of view—to create a vaguely ominous atmosphere as he explores his characters’ psychology, especially the tentative relationship between buttoned-up but insistent Faraday and burdened Caroline. Caroline, outfitted in a series of homey sweaters, is a spinster heroine to cherish, and the movie manages to be both tender and amusingly uncomfortable in depicting Faraday’s courtship. It moves slowly but surely, and Abrahamson is adept at cutting forward when he needs to, never lingering on the exposition too much. That it’s ultimately a movie about class mobility might make The Little Stranger sound dry, and maybe that’s why the studio didn’t want anyone describing it more than 24 hours before release. But it’s also extremely well-wrought, and the ways that it both departs from and leans into ghost-story convention are immensely satisfying.
Just as The Little Stranger belongs with this year’s crop of smart horror thrillers like A Quiet Place and Hereditary even though it’s not as jolting, Victor Levin’s Destination Wedding deserves as much attention as any of the Netflix productions that have caught the eyes of romantic comedy fans even though it’s not as youthful. When the trailer appeared a few months ago, there was a wave of online delight over the movie’s re-pairing of ’90s icons Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves, but that hasn’t seemingly translated to much interest in the movie itself, which is coming out in a few theaters over the weekend.
Like The Little Stranger, Destination Wedding defies some of its genre expectations, namely that romantic comedies must be populated with sidekicks, Baxters, and zany bit players. Reeves and Ryder aren’t just the main attractions; they’re the only actors with on-screen speaking parts. They meet as strangers with a contentious encounter in an airport, en route to the same destination wedding they both dread for different reasons (he’s the groom’s half-brother; she’s the groom’s conflicted ex). They keep getting seated together—on a tiny airplane, at a rehearsal dinner, at the wedding itself—and keep talking and talking and talking, first sniping at each other, then sniping at the other wedding guests, and then eventually growing into each other’s company.
This is an actual two-hander, not just a virtual one; it has as much talk as a movie like Before Sunrise, and fewer locations, so it would be easy enough to produce as a play. Accordingly, the dialogue has a theatrical, sometimes overwritten quality, and at times it sounds like a sitcom writer trying to affect sophistication, convinced that if the sentences are long enough and the wording precise enough, the characters will sound extraordinarily intelligent, even if they’re not actually saying much. Luckily, Levin is at least a pretty good sitcom writer, who worked on Larry Sanders, Mad About You, and—not a sitcom, but frequently hilarious—Mad Men. So if the banter sometimes says less than the screenplay seems to think, it also lands genuine laugh lines in a way that Set It Up or To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before never actually do. Comparisons to classic screwball would be a bit much (these characters really are almost all talk), but some of the verbal gags, like Ryder obsessing over how to classify the possible mountain lion she and Reeves encounter at one point, affect a pretty solid Woody Allen imitation, minus the baggage.
The movie also boasts genuine star power, which I’d define at least in part by how Reeves and Ryder carry this material through despite it not necessarily being tailor-made for either of them. Reeves isn’t really known for comedy beyond Bill and Ted, or romance for that matter; his repeated reinventions have all been action stuff. He’s also not knowing for speaking reams of dialogue, but his natural stiffness serves him well as a misanthrope, especially when Levin throws him a ridiculous bit of family-strife backstory that sounds, with barely a wink, a lot like something that could have happened to John Wick. Ryder, for her part, does some Meg Ryan-level mugging in her frequent two-shots with Reeves, as if the camera wouldn’t be able to read her reactions otherwise; unlike Ryan, she never really made her bones doing rom-coms, and her impression of a flighty-but-hopeful heroine is immensely likable, even, maybe especially, when it goes off-model.
Destination Wedding won’t be remembered as a classic of the genre; it’s not wistful or naturalistic enough for Before Sunrise status, and it’s too experimental to play straight into a You’ve Got Mail strike zone. Yet its mixture of those sensibilities is awfully refreshing, and more inventive than the rom-com’s Netflix acolytes, who know the basic melodies of arguments and emoting, but can’t riff on them with much skill. Why is this movie with two very famous people debuting in a handful of theaters? Why is The Little Stranger being treated as an arthouse obscurity that the studio was tricked into making? The handling of both movies almost seems to reflect a misguided Netflix strategy for actual theatrical releases: just shove ’em out of there, and assume the people who want them will find them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, because now these movies’ best shots will probably be on streaming services anyway. But Little Stranger and Destination Wedding both deserve to be found, maybe even before a lazy Sunday sometime in early 2019.
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