In Indie Comedy ‘A Little White Lie,’ Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction 

A small fib goes a long way in “A Little White Lie,” a light satire that pokes fun at academia and the literary world. Based on the novel “Shriver” by Chris Belden, this indie comedy follows a down-on-his-luck NYC man, Shriver (Michael Shannon), who receives an invitation to be a featured speaker at an upcoming literary conference being held at a small liberal arts college in Salt Lake City. Turns out, Shriver has the same name as a reclusive author, and Dr. Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson), the English professor organizing the event, sent the invite to the wrong man. 

Writer-director Michael Maren succeeds here at exploring what it means to be a writer in a humorous way. Shriver’s pal Lenny (Mark Boone Junior) convinces the divorced, downtrodden handyman that he can pass himself off as a writer, because writers are all depressed and spend more time complaining about not being able to write than they do actually writing. He agrees to go, partly because there is some sort of prize on the line for him. After Simone follows up asking if he would write something new to read at the conference, he puts pen to paper and writes about the water stain on his bedroom ceiling, and his work is not at all bad. In fact, as the viewer comes to learn, his voice turns out to be similar to that of the real Shriver, who wrote one supposedly brilliant novel before disappearing off of the face of the earth.

Once in Utah, Shriver bumble through the charade of being the other Shriver, although he seems awkward and out of it. Fortunately for him, his demeanor is not far off from that of a lot of artists, and others are drawn to this eccentric man, including Delta Jones (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), another writer known for her sexually-charged work, and T. Wasserman (Don Johnson), an ultra macho, pseudo-cowboy colleague of Simone’s who has misogynistic views about female writers. But not everyone is a fan, and Shriver clashes early on with Blythe Brown (Aja Naomi King), a lesbian poet.

As for Shriver and Simone, after an awkward first encounter at the airport, a mutual respect and attraction grows between the two. At the end of the day, the viewer gets the impression that deep down, it does not matter too much to Simone if Shriver is who he says he is, as long as he plays the part and does not embarrass her. Indeed, this is an effective recurring theme throughout the film, that people will believe whatever they want to believe. Shriver is interviewed by a former Rolling Stone staff writer, Jack Blunt (Benjamin King), who interviewed the real Shriver over the phone several years ago. As Jack is now working freelance and desperate for a follow-up, Shriver obliges him, and during the interview he outright confesses that he is not the real Shriver, and Jack takes his words for existential musings. Again, it doesn’t really matter if he turns in an article that generates a ton of clicks. 

Maren also touches on how those in the literary world and academic settings have a tendency to be self-aggrandizing. Early on, Simone has a funny line about her department churning out useless degrees, but few people around her actually see themselves as those who would be unemployable outside of this comfy bubble. Grad student Teresa (Romy Byrne), tells Shriver that there’s no way she will ever be stuck teaching like Simone, as she fully expects to have a thriving writing career in New York. Wasserman, meanwhile, has his own delusions of grandeur. Simone, who set her writing career aside years ago to focus on being a professor, comes across as the most grounded character. Sadly, she does suffer from imposter syndrome, and Shriver turns out to be the unlikely person she needs to get a much-needed ego boost.

But it is not all Fantasyland, as very real threats loom over Shriver’s head, including the fact that the real Shriver’s agent is supposed to attend his reading. Not to mention, the real Shiver is supposed to be out there somewhere. There’s also a missing person storyline crammed in here, an undercooked subplot that distracts from the main story. Throughout it all, Shannon keeps the viewer on Shriver’s side, given a believable and endearing performance as the character flubs his way through this ordeal. He’s not a big talker, but when he does speak, he has a poetic way with words that leaves most others fawning. Technically, he plays dual roles, as he is also Shriver’s own conscience, inner self, popping up at the most inopportune moments. All of this leads to a divisive twist ending that has something meaningful to say about writers and imposter syndrome.

A Little White Lie” releases March 3 in select theaters and on VOD.