The trouble with nostalgia is that it fails to plug change into the equation. Our memories stay perfectly preserved – often closer to how we choose to hold onto them than how we actually experienced them – like old photos and love letters, but we forget that people change, dreams take on new forms, and home keeps growing long after we’ve left it. As Noël Wells (Saturday Night Live, Master of None) reminds us in her charismatic directorial debut, Mr. Roosevelt, sometimes the fabric of our memories only need to have a single thread tugged to be sent spiraling out of control.
For struggling comedian Emily (Wells), that tug comes when she gets a call from her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) informing her that her cat (our titular character) has passed away. Soon, she must pack in a frenzy and leave her life in Los Angeles to return to her old college stomping grounds in Austin, Texas. Much to Emily’s surprise, Eric is now living with his health-conscious, “entrepreneur” girlfriend Celeste (Britt Lower), who Emily views as the polar opposite of where her own life has headed.
The plot of Mr. Roosevelt isn’t overly complex. Drawing from her own experiences as a formative voice in a style of comedy isn’t easy to define, it’s all too easy to read the film as an autobiographical exploration for Noël Wells. However, the circumstances continually take a backseat to the characters, all of whom are learning how to grow up and let go of their past. With her unique personality as a writer, as a director, and as a performer, Wells artfully transforms a story that we’ve heard before into a surprisingly fresh narrative. She isn’t tearing down any cinematic conventions, but she certainly knows how to use them to her advantage.
While the film runs the risk of being obnoxiously quirky and twee, the storytelling is endearing enough to accentuate the strongest qualities of its genre. With sharp dialogue, dynamic characters, an impressively balanced tightrope of tones, and a phenomenal ensemble cast, Mr. Roosevelt earns a staying power that isn’t normally afforded to the indistinguishable blob of idiosyncratic Sundance dramedies. Wells ensured this through her inspired choices as a filmmaker, such as shooting on 35mm film, providing the movie with a vintage feel that truly brings Austin to life.
Even the film’s missteps – which are few and far between – only add to its lasting charm. Mr. Roosevelt probes the depths of compromise within its characters, making the argument that success is an ever-changing spectrum. In doing so, it is a rousing reminder that coming of age movies aren’t reserved for teenage protagonists. Thirty-somethings can be lost in the shuffle as well, and Wells reminds us that there’s no deadline for finding your place in the universe. As funny as it is heartfelt, Mr. Roosevelt is truly a film for the modern age.