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Are there few things worse in this world than the death of a cat? The answer to that is yes, of course, but the passing of any pet is enough to bring people together and celebrate the life of a beloved member of the family. Unless your ex-boyfriend has your cat, and his new girlfriend won’t leave you alone by trying to make you feel comfortable and empathetic and you can only afford the second-cheapest urn for his ashes. Noël Wells’ Austin-set debut feature, Mr. Roosevelt, is about the passing of such a cat and all the chaos that it causes for its owner.

Emily (Wells) is an LA-based improv comic who is stuck at a dead-end. She works a crummy job as a video editor for a pharmaceutical company, auditions fruitlessly for lame commercials, and is only known by anybody for a crappy YouTube short she made of her performing a Michael Jackson song while bathing in spaghetti. She was originally from Austin, but left her boyfriend (Nick Thune) and her cat behind to pursue her dreams of superstardom. One day, during one of the most awkward sexual encounters committed to film, she gets a call from her ex telling her that the cat, Mr. Roosevelt, is on his last legs, and so she rushes back to Texas. She soon finds out that a) her cat’s dead and b) her ex (whom she still loves, by the way) has a new girlfriend (Britt Lower) who is impossibly beautiful and put together. Of course, this is a recipe for beautiful, hilarious disaster.

Wells has taken a few queues from the kind of autobiographical filmmakers who have come before her (Brooks and Dunham are particularly vivid in the writing) and her approach to photographing Austin owes a heavy debt to Linklater and company, but she incorporates all of these elements well enough that they don’t feel derivative in the slightest. She shot the film on 16mm, and it’s grainy and warm in a beautifully hazy way like all the Austin classics do. Where she gets truly original is her character work — there isn’t a bad guy in the picture, and the whole thing is just so empathetic and deeply fond of its characters that it engages well. I don’t have any trouble buying that these people could exist around the Chipotle I’m writing this review in, and who knows? It might be cool to meet them and party with them. Wells is also particularly good as Emily, and you might know how funny she is from her work on Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. She brings a manic energy to the role that really hypes up an energetic film, and yet she’s never a bother.

The only character who feels truly more of a caricature might be Jen (played well with what she’s given by Daniella Pineda), the friend Emily runs into (literally) in Austin, who seems to be the kind of wish-fulfillment best friend that pops up in a lot of comedic fiction. Luckily, their rapport works well enough, and any quibbles you could have with that are easily forgotten about. The plot, as well, seems to be a bit too tidy in an unrealistic way, and for a film that celebrates fucking up and finding yourself it’s kind of ironic how everything comes together. The emotional beats are there (Dan Harmon could actually use this movie as a pretty good example of his “story cycle” arc for characters) and are satisfying, so it’s hard to really make a big deal about it.

On some level, it’s really hard to believe that this is Wells’ first feature as a director, as Mr. Roosevelt is directed with a sense of self and purpose that it normally takes a few films to truly work out. The writing is blissfully funny and sweet, the filmmaking is excellent, and the cast’s having a really great time doing solid work. All in all, Mr. Roosevelt is a very good and fun debut, and I really hope they release it in the summer. It’s a perfect movie for lazy hot days, the kind when the sun scorches your eyes as you leave the theater and hunt for a party to go to.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and use #VanyaSXSW for all Vanyaland’s ongoing coverage at South-By-Southwest 2017. Featured Mr. Roosevelt image by Dagmar Weaver-Madsen.

 

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