Like a gentle breeze that leaves you refreshed but isn’t strong enough to even mess up your hair, The Sunlit Night arrives as yet another under-the-radar indie gem that tells a cute little story with fun characters, a pinch of drama, and all kinds of quirky local color. Adapted by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight from her own 2015 novel, the film debuted at Sundance to poor reviews in 2019 and was subsequently trimmed by 20 minutes for its wide(r) release this week.
The end result is a sweet, 81-minute bit of moviemaking that won’t have any kind of lasting impact but still serves as a showcase for not only star Jenny Slate but the entire northern coast of Norway.
After a brief New York-set prologue, The Scandanavian landscape takes center stage as struggling painter Frances (Slate) travels there to escape all her big city baggage—the sum total of which could fill, well, an art gallery. The film’s opening gives us a trio of snooty art critics lambasting her work (“it makes me angry”), and then, after breaking up with her boyfriend, she returns home to the dinky studio apartment (a “Mondrian of claustrophobia”) that she shares with her parents and younger sister. There, she discovers she wasn’t picked for a Tokyo residency, that her baby sis is engaged, and her parents are separating.
Naturally, when her agent tells her of an opportunity to work in the far reaches of Norway for a few months, she jumps at the chance. There, she serves as apprentice to the brusque, reclusive artist Nils (Fridjov Sáheim), who is in the process of painting an old barn varying shades of yellow, in the hope that the Norwegian Art Institute will put him on the map (literally, as it turns out). It’s grunt work, to be sure, but it offers a level of tedium that Fran welcomes. Now, if she could only get some sleep in the land of the midnight sun.
If you’re wondering what kind of movie about northern Norway this could possibly be without a Viking funeral, fear not, The Sunlit Night also offers one of those, too—as Brooklynite Yasha (Alex Sharp) arrives in the village to fulfill the last wishes of his late father. As the only two American, English-speaking, young people in the entire area, it’s no surprise that Frances and Yasha find companionship with each other.
It’s also no surprise (but still delightful) that there’s a roll call of all off-the-wall supporting characters. Zach Galifianakis’s Haldor is a Cincinnati-transplant who now dons fur and leather as the leader of the troupe of Viking re-enactors. Luise Nes is the reclusive clerk working in the refrigerated cooler at the local supermarket whom Fran befriends, and Gillian Anderson cameos as Yasha’s estranged Russian mother. Each gives the film just enough added oomph to get it across the finish line.
Landing somewhere in the neighborhood of films like Drake Doremus’s 2011 gem Like Crazy and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, The Sunlit Night is a pleasant travelogue of a film, anchored by a moving, understated performance by the endearing Slate. It will waft over you with a refreshing air and then wisp its way out of your consciousness just as quickly.