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I Used To Be Funny ★★★



Directed: Ally Pankiw

Cast: Rachel Sennott, Olga Petsa, Jason Jones, Sabrina Jalees, Caleb Hearon, Ennis Esmer, Dani Kind

Released: TBA

People process trauma through comedy. The innate human ability to refract distress and sorrow through a humorous lens and transform it into something that brings others joy is kind of a superpower and one that is commonly utilised by the very best stand-up comics. Director Ally Pankiw’s debut feature, I Used To Be Funny, instead drags her narrative through several stages of grief from that end product of acceptance to ask what life is like while you’re still processing. If comedy is your outlet and your career, what happens when trauma robs you of it?

The film stars emerging queen of indie comedy Rachel Sennott as Sam, a stand-up comedian on a prolonged career break as she grapples with ongoing PTSD and depression, whose sluggish existence is interrupted when Brooke (Olga Petsa), a teenage girl she used to nanny, goes missing. Pankiw presents the story in a non-linear format, leading the audience along a winding track as Sam’s reluctant involvement in Brooke’s missing persons’ case is intercut with, and informed by, slices of their abruptly concluded friendship sometime earlier.

While the source of Sam’s trauma is repeatedly alluded to and tied intrinsically to her relationship with Brooke, it is ultimately obfuscated until close to the film’s confusion. But despite its use as a core, mysterious plot device, Sam’s mental health struggle in the present is portrayed with a level of authenticity and care rarely seen in trauma narratives involving women. Sennott fully embodies the stagnation depression can induce in a way that will be familiar to many young women. Sam lays on her bed in a bath towel for hours on end. She stands in front of the fridge, eating lunch meat almost directly out of the packet. She listens to a soundtrack of MUNA and Phoebe Bridgers on a semi-concerning loop. She’s a bit of a dick to her friends. The performance evokes real frustration and compassion, but Sam is, notably, never villainised for her behaviour. Neither is Brooke, whose repeated hostility towards her former nanny both on and offline is treated with a nuanced level of understanding facilitated by Petsa’s emotive, star-making turn. The chemistry between both lead actresses is electric and undoubtedly the definitive highlight of the film.

Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t do enough to support its two leads’ solid performances. Though the flashback sections are well-handled and pointedly refuse to lose sight of the film’s destination, the same cannot be said for the present. In allotting ample time to how Sam’s experiences continue to influence not only her life but the lives of those around her, it ultimately falls prey to the same aimlessness afflicting its main character. The pacing often stumbles and produces a sense that the present-day plot relies too heavily on the film’s non-linear presentation to provide interest.

I Used To Be Funny’s cardinal sin is that it simply isn’t funny. With Sam and her roommates (Sabrina Jalees and Caleb Hearon) portrayed by actual comedians and the close-knit Toronto comedy circuit environment that these characters inhabit, you would expect to find at least some decent laughs throughout despite its serious themes. Alas, outside a few scenes from Sam’s flashbacks, the film’s tone is consistently dour, and the writing of the rare jokes is relatively poor. While this aligns with the title, it doesn’t align with the film’s marketing as a dramedy. It does a disservice to the legitimately hilarious cast – especially knowing that Sennott can marry comedy with an overwhelming sense of dread a la Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby (2020) firmly in the bag.

Ultimately, I Used To Be Funny is a perfectly acceptable initial offering from Ally Pankiw, with some fantastic lead performances. However, its unwavering commitment to showing the up-and-down realities of healing and grief sadly steals some of the cinematic thunder that this big-screen narrative needs to stick to the cathartic landing.

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