Jenny Slate stars as a struggling artist in the sweet and strange new dramedy The Sunlit Night. Frances travels to picturesque Norway to take on a mind-numbing “paint by numbers” project with a stern Norwegian boss, expecting at the very least to escape the tiny New York apartment where her parents have announced they’re separating and her sister is marrying a man they can’t stand.
But as in most narratives of this kind – the good ones, at least – she finds a lot more than she expected. A goat in her bed, for one. Sleeping in a tiny camper in a country where the sun never fully sets, she becomes accustomed to a new way of life that provides perspective on her old one. The journey she takes, along with her art, is a pleasant, quiet one to be on – with plenty of earned laughs for good measure, as with most Slate performances. (On a FaceTime call with her mom explaining her less-than-exciting Norwegian adventures, she explains that her diet consists of “a lot of … brown cheese?”)
Frances has no real choice but to take a chance on Norway – and finds an odd set of lonely characters who could potentially enrich her life as an artist, or make her feel even more closed-in than before. The enjoyment of The Sunlit Night comes in taking a huge leap, followed by tentative steps, to find out – proving that sometimes the choices you make my default are the most important.
“This is a movie about stretching oneself over the abyss of the unknown and touching the other, quieter side,” screenwriter Rebecca Dinerstein Knight wrote of the film, which she adapted from her own novel of the same name, inspired by her own experience in the Norwegian Arctic. “The blankness and newness that open up there carry the risk of incredible loneliness, and the promise of wild revelation.”
The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2019 and could never have predicted the timing of its release amid a global pandemic. But it strangely helps the travel-restriction blues by taking us to picturesque Norway. We can’t go anywhere, and the noise and chaos in our own country is painful and deafening – but at least we can follow Frances on this weird, peaceful ride and take in the view on screen. Beautifully shot and featuring gorgeous landscapes from director David Wnendt and cinematographer Martin Ahlgren, Frances says this corner of the country is so beautiful that it almost looks like a “bad painting.”
This character views the world through paintings, and the film is refreshing because it takes us inside the mind of an artist by simply telling us that. It fills in the blanks with third-person narration to show how Frances views her life through art, and Slate is not only a funny, layered lead, but an entertaining narrator.
While it veers off-course with a subplot about the nearby Viking Museum that likely landed better on the pages of the novel, it’s the slow humor and small moments that make The Sunlit Night different and unexpected. “I like being in a place that knows what it is. There’s a lot of ‘here,’ here,” Frances says at the VIking Museum. Though The Sunlit Night’s screen adaptation doesn’t always quite know what it is, there’s a lot of here – and heart – here.