Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Webber, Jeff Garlin, Ellie Kemper, Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell
Running time: 99 minutes
Rated: R for language, some sexual material and teen partying.
Rank: Three stars out of four.
Lynn Shelton is a curious, Pacific Northwest-bred hybrid of high-concept and low-production value.
She has made a specialty out of deconstructing sitcom-y setups: two pals trying to follow through on a dare to make a gay porno (“Humpday”); a man betwixt two interested sisters, one of them a lesbian, in a remote cabin (“Your Sister’s Sister”). Instead of heightening the broad potential of such stories, she plays them naturally, usually with improvised dialogue and an un-stylized, micro-budget intimacy.
She’s something like the movies’ answer to the organic food movement: a farm-fresh producer of comfort food.
In “Laggies,” Shelton has brought her light, heartfelt touch to her most familiar, movie-ready plot. It is a version of the back-to-school comedy rendered not with Rodney Dangerfield antics but the soul-searching of a direction-less 28-year-old Seattleite (Keira Knightley).
Megan has spent her post-high school life procrastinating and earning a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy (“because I wanted to have honest conversations with people,” she says) that she hasn’t put to use, unable to relate to her clients. She lives with her cloyingly sweet high-school boyfriend (Mark Webber) and does odd jobs for her father (Jeff Garlin), like spinning signs to advertise his accounting business. When her careerist, bridezilla friend (Ellie Kemper) gets married and her boyfriend proposes, Megan’s arrested development turns into a crisis.
On a run to the grocery store, she meets 16-year-old Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), who gets her to buy beer for her friends. They hit it off partly because their maturity level is about equal. Instead of going to the self-help seminar her boyfriend thinks she’s attending, Megan crashes with Annika, becoming enmeshed in her group of teenage friends and attending high-school parties.
Annika, too, is a little lost. Her mom abandoned her and her father (Sam Rockwell), a divorce attorney who suspiciously observes the arrival of her daughter’s clearly older new friend at their suburban split-level. Returning to the stage in life where she became stunted, Megan — in a tail spin of impulsiveness — begins to figure herself out.
Man-child movies have long been commonplace for members of the opposite sex, so “Laggies,” penned by Andrea Seigel, is a welcome twist, one with more than a little in common with “Bridesmaids.” The familiar notes — the wacky friend, the inevitable prom scene — to Shelton’s film keep it from ever finding the kind of honesty its character crave.
“Laggies” is really a film about people looking for genuine connection outside of traditional roles. Just as the film doesn’t want to be only an implausible romp, its characters — a slacker fleeing stereotypical marriage, a lonely single-father, a teenager who wants anything at all from her mom — want the confidence to break free of convention.
Shelton’s movies can have an interesting schizophrenia, feeling both too contrived and not structured enough. “Laggies” is easily her largest, most scripted film yet, a transition that feels perfectly smooth. Her ability to coax unadorned performances from actors is her most obvious skill, and it results here with a fine Knightley as a recognizable kind of selfishly meandering mess, who probably deserves a more critical eye than this movie is willing to give her.
But it’s Moretz and Rockwell who give “Laggies” its charm. A former child star (“Hugo,” “Kick Ass”), Moretz has a warm poise beyond her years that radiates through the film and suggests she may be becoming into an actress of considerable talent.
The off-kilter energy of Rockwell, looking very much the sure-handed veteran, gives the movie a happy jolt. “Laggies” is never more fun than when he calls Megan into his office, shiftily cross-examining her. In another such movie, the father would be blissfully unaware of the age differential. Here, he punctures the fiction in a heartbeat, leading the movie somewhere else.