Jenny Slate Is a Bright Light in Indie Drama ‘The Sunlit Night’

A young artist’s dreams take her all the way to the other side of the world in “The Sunlit Night,” a quirky drama based on the novel of the same name by Rebecca Dinerstein. Jenny Slate stars as Frances, a New York art student who becomes a fish out of water when she accepts an assistant position in rural Norway, helping an eccentric artist (Fridjov Sáheim) paint a barn, coming in contact with a colorful assortment of characters.

Art is subjective, and director David Wnendt and Dinerstein, who adapted her novel into the screenplay, show us firsthand how brutal it can be to be an art student, as we see Frances forced to sit in silence as her pretentious professors rip apart her work. She finds little peace at home, as she has recently broken up with her boyfriend and moved back into her parents’ one-bedroom apartment, sharing a room with her law student sister, Gaby (Elise Kibler). Change comes rather quickly when Gaby announces her engagement on the same night her mom Mirela (Jessica Hecht) and dad Levi (David Paymer) break the news of their separation. 

Mirela and Levi also once had big dreams of making it as respected artists, but now they design textiles and illustrate for medical textbooks, respectively. But Frances’ flight to Norway is not so much so that she can prove herself as an artist, but rather to get out of her current crappy living situation, sharing an air mattress with her dad in a tiny art studio.

Upon her arrival in Norway, Frances is met by her new boss, Nils, who proves to be lousy company, as he is a misanthrope and a man of few words. Frances’ primary job is to help Nils paint his barn, which sounds easy enough, except that Nils is very particular, and while his work ethic is admirable, the viewer feels Frances’ pain as she’s stuck painting twelve hours a day. Adding to her difficulties is that the village is close to the Arctic Circle, meaning the sun shines throughout the night, making it difficult for her to sleep in the tiny trailer Nils put her in.

Despite her long work hours, Frances manages to find time to explore the village, including the local Viking museum, curated by a fellow American (Zach Galifianakis), known as Haldor. The other well-known actor who pops up is Gillian Anderson, who plays Olyana, the self-absorbed Russian mother of Yasha (Alex Sharp), a baker who has come all the way from New York to fulfill his father’s last wish of having a Viking funeral. Frances has an affair with Yasha, but the relationship falls flat onscreen due to the lack of chemistry between the actors. It also doesn’t help that we feel like we barely get to know the introverted Yasha, who is supposed to be mysterious but comes off as dull at times. There’s also a lack of character development when it comes to Haldor and Olyana, and it’s a mystery why established performers like Galifianakis and Anderson agreed to play such one-note roles.

One relationship we can get behind is that between Frances and a local grocery store worker (Luise Nes) who becomes her muse. Something cool about Frances is that she is able to look at people and compare them to classic paintings. In this young woman, she sees an angel straight from an Italian Renaissance painting, and after several trips to buy milk, she easily convinces her to sit for a painting.

While “The Sunlit Night” never gets as deep as it could, Slate makes the most of it and gives a fine performance. Paymer also deserves applause for his portrayal of a bitter man who comes to realize his mistakes late in life.

The Sunlit Night” releases July 17 on VOD.