Wild Canaries has a DIY sensibility and no lofty ambitions. In fact Wild Canaries doesn’t want you to take it too seriously, an approach that others are sure to find more endearing than I do.
What starts as a film about a young couple in New York turns into a detective-movie farce, at least in the minds of its characters.
New York Stories
Barri and Noah (Sophia Takal and writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine) are a young couple living in a New York apartment. Noah works as, presumably, an aspiring filmmaker. Barri hopes to find an old house upstate that she can turn into a spa. They bicker and nag, but generally get along.
Barri comes across as a little scatterbrained. She’s energetic, excitable, and full of grand ideas. Maybe a psychologist might use the term “manic.” Noah is a pretty good match for Barri, with the same build and the same excitable temperament, though he’s a little more grounded.
Their lesbian friend Jean (Alia Shawkat) lives with them in the apartment. Jean is quick to side with Barri, but she the calm and down-to-earth person in their household.
Barri goes downstairs to visit a neighbor, an older woman named Sylvia, whom she finds lying dead on the floor. After the funeral Barri notices Syliva’s awkward son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) is selling all the furniture, and she invites him to dinner.
Murder, She Speculated
At a conversation-heavy get-together with friends, Barri speculates that maybe Sylvia was murdered, and that maybe the awkward Anthony did it. Noah jumps to Anthony’s defense; being socially awkward is not a crime, and it would be completely understandable if someone wanted to clear out an apartment and/or get some quick money after the death of a loved one.
Almost more to defend herself in what has escalated into an argument than out of any real conviction, Sylvia piles more and more suspicion on Anthony, and she enlists the adversarial aid of her friends at the party. Noah escalates too, rather than retreating, and suddenly Barri is practically accusing Anthony of murder.
Other strange occurrences get added to the conspiracy in Barri’s head. Their landlord Damien (Jason Ritter) is selling the building, and maybe his assumed money troubles have something to do with Sylvia’s “murder.”
Meanwhile, Noah’s bisexual ex (and his current business partner, played by Annie Parisse) seems to be rekindling the old flame. And Jean, who is partnering with Barri on her spa idea, seems to be trying to kindle something in Barri.
The convoluted plot — which starts to look more and more like Barri’s fantasies — culminates in a scene that’s even more convoluted, and explained in a throwaway dialogue that tops even that.
An Actors’ Movie
Thanks to Takal’s energy as Barri, it’s pretty clear that Wild Canaries is as much a comedy as a drama. And I admit that I chuckled and grinned in most of the right places.
I also found myself raising my defenses. The movie is self-consciously superficial, with TV-show detective music playing over scenes of tension. It’s corny, but with the smug expectation that you will accept it.
Every characters is likeable, including the annoying ones. Even the minor characters get names, personalities, and decent performances. Wild Canaries is a very “ensemble” movie that feels like it was written by and for actors (and it was).
Wild Canaries probably isn’t one of my favorite festival films this year, but it does have a lot of appeal for the right audience. I hope Levine and his colleagues are able to keep themselves in work. I look forward to their next offering.