Actress Karen Gillan has established herself in numerous genres. Between her work on Doctor Who, the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and Oculus, to name a handful of her most noteworthy screen performances, Gillan has proven herself versatile numerous times in sci-fi, action, comedy, fantasy, horror and more. But she has rarely showcased her talents in the drama field, which is why The Party’s Just Beginning — Gillan’s feature screenwriting and directorial debut — is such a departure for the talent. For one of the first times in her career, Gillan has a vehicle to showcases her skills in dramatic fashion — both as an actress and a filmmaker. Thankfully, she excels in both, producing a film that lets her shine on her own terms.
At the forefront of the film, both behind and in front of the camera, Gillan stars as Liusaidh, a hard-partying, emotionally disconnected 24-year-old in the suburbs of Scotland. Since her best friend Alistair (a tremendous Matthew Beard) took his own life, Liusaidh has struggled to find direction and meaning in her own. She copes with her dead-end grocery store job, her aloof parents and her difficulty staying connected with her friend, Donna (Rachel Jackson), by spending her nights heavily drinking and engaging in spontaneous one-night-stands, as illustrated by a sharply edited opening.
With the one-year anniversary of Alistair’s suicide weighing heavily on Liusaidh, our wayward mid-20s protagonist feels stuck. Nothing seems to matter much, and she doesn’t know how to fix up her life — which is growingly increasingly disheveled and guilt-ridden, particularly as the gloomy Christmas season draws closer and closer. It is only through the relationship she forms with a handsome, mysterious tourist, Dale (a bearded Lee Pace), that Liusaidh finds any sort of happiness or content in her life.
Playing the role with emotional honesty and an openness for the character’s messy, sad-filled life, Gillan provides one of her strongest, most compelling roles. It helps that she wrote the role for herself, as it’s apparent that the writer-director knows this role thoroughly and completely. One might wonder if this role is based on something personal, particularly based on how intimate and unabashedly ingrained the story can seem. That’s not for me to know or speculate, but I will say that it’s a testament to Gillan that this world and this character feel so natural and developed — filled with rich touches, careful consideration and a screenplay that takes great strides to show these characters in such fragile, unwavering terms. Gillan is a gifted storyteller, it’s clear to see, and it’ll be a great joy to see where she develops her career behind the camera.
A passion project that has been long-in-the-works for Gillan, though she was finally able to get it made based on her growing fame through Marvel and elsewhere, The Party’s Just Beginning sells itself as something of a dark comedy, but it proves itself to be more somber, intensive, (intentionally) uncomfortable, heartwrenching and, yes, dramatic, as it pushes forward. Through trial after trial, Gillan proves herself to be a bold, unflinching filmmaker — particularly related to the film’s focus on suicide, trauma, depression, repression, grief, and guilt. It is certainly a difficult film to watch, and that becomes exceptionally true towards the film’s (intentionally) tumultuous third act, which will prove difficult for some to watch. While Gillan’s fearless as a filmmaker is applaudable and commendable, there are certain moments where the plot doesn’t match the film’s ambitions. The manner through which it weaves its ideals between the past and the present is extremely effective in parts. Then in other times, it shows the patches in Gillan’s script, where ideas are brought up but not given their full due. It is to be expected with one’s first film as a director, but the talent that shines during the movie’s best moments — particularly with Gillan’s thoughtful performance — make the movie’s shortcomings more unfortunate. A polished script would’ve done wonders.
For instance, while the semi-romance between Gillan and Pace’s characters is charming, it does feel familiar to a fault — even down to the character’s unwillingness to give each other their actual names. Similarly, there’s a storyline involving Liusadih and a little-known caller that show that Gillan has been working on the film for a while and maybe some parts a little overwritten. This subplot finds the movie telegraphing a lot of Lisuadih’s struggles when they were already explored effectively in other, more richly revealing moments involving montages, strong sound editing, and stylish flourishes. While that’s not to say that these moments are bad, they suffer from the dreaded “telling instead of showing” debacle, although they might be a nice change-of-pace for audience members who find themselves turned off by numerous scenes of Liusadih partying and shagging the night away in the heart of Scotland to avoid her burdens.
Furthermore, there’s a subplot that’s introduced fairly late into The Party’s Just Beginning involving Liusaidh’s mum (Siobhan Redmond) that could’ve been interesting had it been explored earlier in the film and in a way that doesn’t feel tacked on past the hour mark. Granted, Gillan’s first film is meant to be a little chaotic and unorganized to reflect our main character’s troubled mindset, and it is often a credit to Gillan as a blooming filmmaker that the movie is pretty easy to follow despite Liusaidh’s troubles.
And the stuff that works in The Party’s Just Beginning really works, which hopefully should suggest that Gillan will prove to be even more adept as a filmmaker with her next project, which is reportedly already in the works. She’s truly a talent to watch, and it’s great to see her talent become more and more realized and fulfilled after showcasing that potential these past few years. In true Hollywood fashion, even though this movie is very much based in Scotland, sometimes one needs to step up and make their own movies to show the world what they’re really capable of. That’s certainly true with Gillan’s first feature. Truly, this is only the beginning for Karen Gillan’s long career.