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The dinner party has long been the setting for groups of young people to meet and collide, fast-talking their way through contemporary issues and hot topics. From The Big Chill (1983) to Peter’s Friends (1992) to everything in-between, these films cover it all from racism and AIDS to comets and cults and more. The formula is one that allows many diverse characters to come together in a confined space and run amok over the full spectrum of emotions as they learn just how important they really are to each other. With Auld Lang Syne, there’s a lot that is familiar of course, yet remains a sincere little film that is silly and smart.
On New Year’s Eve, Steven (J.T. Arbogast) and Vanessa (Kimberly Dilts) host a gathering of three couples, old friends who for ten years have met at the family’s rented cabin. They are an eclectic set, with Steven and Vanessa desperately trying to maintain their small theater group; Sadie (Lucy Walters) is a struggling actor who can’t catch a break who arrives with her newest boyfriend Jude (Caleb Bark), a folk-ish rock star with a hit in Germany; and then there’s Bryce (Blake DeLong), an up-tight accountant and his wife Jodie (Elisabeth Hower), a photo-journalist that has done notable work but has virtually no career.
The party starts well, with some obvious tension already lingering before Bryce and Jodie announce that they are splitting up after six years married. He wants kids but she doesn’t and while they still love each other, mutually agree to separate. It sends a ripple through the evening that surges forth like a tsunami as secrets and confessions rain down over the friends until it comes to fist-a-cuffs and food fights. And a very delicious pie.
Directed by Johanna McKeon and written by Dilts, Auld Lang Syne wisely makes this story about its individuals rather than forcing a gender or couple’s war agenda. These six characters are richly diverse and well-defined, if not colorfully so and while it draws upon a few unsurprising plot points, manages to spin them into mostly unexpected places, allowing some conflicts to be resolved and one left to linger. While it plays mostly with humor, there is no lack of authenticity, especially as the night progresses. Sure, it divulges into a peculiar moment where two women and two men find interesting ways to reach very different solutions to their issues, but one can’t say it isn’t original.
In any film like this, one where there is basically a single set seen from a number of different angles, it’s the characters within that make it matter. The dinner party genre is about spinning plates, keeping a series of delicately balanced plot points up in the air as tensions mount beneath them, and the ones that do this best understand that it takes audience investment in these characters to make the plates that do fall have greater impact. Both Dilts and McKeon mostly find the right tone throughout, especially as it builds momentum as three converging stories finally clash. The timing here is very good, reminding me of Peter Bogdanovich‘s highly-underrated Noises Off (1992) a zany play within a play film. Auld Lang Syne isn’t trying to sustain that film’s energy, and in fact slows things down a number of times to dwell on some more personal crises, but it does have some inspired moments.
Some of the best laughs come Bark as the somewhat spacey musician who writes songs about girls and has never heard of Hamlet (even the Mel Gibson one), though when he’s told the story, proclaims profoundly that he’s got to tell the world about it. When he learns a harsh truth from Sadie while deciding they should have no secrets, it’s proves a bit too much. His coping choice is one perhaps a few more of us could adopt. Others are very good too, with Dilts and Arbogast very natural and Delong a perfect Debbie Downer.
Auld Lang Syne is an earnest little indie film, smartly written and well-acted. And I’m going to take a moment here to point out the film is mostly made by women, including some nice cinematography from Kimberly Culotta, and even though it shouldn’t matter, it really does.
Director: Johanna McKeon
Writer: Kimberly Dilts
Stars: J.T. Arbogast, Caleb Bark, Blake DeLong
Genre: Comedy, Drama