I USED TO BE FUNNY – Review by Nadine Whitney

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“I’m not a girlfriend. I’m barely a friend. I’m not contributing anything to society, so stop being so fucking nice to me.” – Sam.

Sam Cowell (Rachel Sennott) used to be a person until she became almost entirely erased by a violent act and the subsequent fallout which used her identity as a confidant stand-up comedian against her. Sam Cowell not only used to be funny – she used to “be.”

Writer/director Ally Pankiw uses a series of ordered flashbacks to reveal the weight of Sam’s trauma. Once an on the rise comedian and rallying voice for messy zennials, Sam not only had a particular zeitgeist presence – she had friends, a boyfriend, a group of ‘Yasss, girl’ fans, and the common online troll detractors. She also had Brooke (Olga Petsa – wonderful) who she ‘nannied’ for two of the worst years in the now almost fifteen-year-old’s life.

Hired by Cameron (Jason Jones) Brooke’s cop father to look after her while her mom is in hospital, Sam becomes more than a nanny to Brooke, and more than a friend. Sam is raising Brooke through the essential tween years with warmth and deadpan wisdom. Despite Cameron letting Sam know that he doesn’t think much of her career as a comedian, nor her opinions in general, he needs Sam to stick around because he can’t cope with basically ‘whatever it is females do.’ His wife, Laura, was the one who brought light into the home – and one assumes money, because private school and a house that size doesn’t come from a cop’s salary.

In the present-day Brooke is motherless and out of control. Her maternal aunt Jill (Dani Kind) can’t stop Brooke spiralling into recklessness bordering on delinquency. After throwing a rock through Sam’s front door she goes missing. Sam’s best friends and housemates Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon) want her to let go of Brooke and find a way through her PTSD which the teen is a trigger and reminder. Sam wants that too – she is sick of herself and of being afraid, “I’m sorry I’m not a fun asshole anymore,” she tells Paige. Yet she is funny – she, Philip, and Paige bounce off each other with light and very dark humour. Sam is reaching into echoes of herself and finding she’s there sometimes, it’s just a herculean effort to keep trying to make those echoes her full-throated voice. Brooke’s disappearance and behaviour isn’t her responsibility – but forgetting the kid isn’t easy to do because Brooke is also reacting to trauma.

I Used to Be Funny carries the dramatic and comedic tones with an air of absolute relatability. Nothing feels dishonest in Sennott’s performance. The relationship she builds with Brooke is one of genuine love. A love which outweighed all the belittling and line-crossing from Cameron. A love that meant she brought Brooke into all the PG aspects of her life. A love that means that she must find Brooke before the teen completely self-destructs. Two can’t go down with the ship.

Pankiw’s film highlights the push and pull of complex PTSD that you can know you are choosing to do things that harm yourself, such as pushing away people who love you. Sam breaks up with her adoring boyfriend Noah (Ennis Emmer) because it requires too much effort to be cared for. Paige and Philip really will do anything for her but because Sam doesn’t know what she wants, they hang back and deal with her sardonic depression with matched witticisms mood gauging. Philip’s “Don’t think about Euphoria” line is an all-timer when Sam decides to track down Brooke in Niagara. Paige’s lesbian math equations are priceless. Sam’s drollness is part genius and part immensely sad adding up to representing how a lot of people cope with terrible situations.

Ally Pankiw’s astute script recognises there is no defined path to getting better when dealing with PTSD. It can be moving two steps forward and falling back three behind. PTSD is insular. Sam doesn’t want to be the centre of attention but somehow, she always is. “What happened to me doesn’t make me relevant,” she tells a sexist comedian who tells her she’s lucky she can make jokes about anything because of her lived experience.

Rachel Sennott has comedy sewn into her core, but that doesn’t preclude her from giving a layered and honest dramatic performance. Her work in the film effortlessly moves from subtle, loud, hilarious, sarcastic, melancholic, frustrated, annoying, and fierce. “She’s traumatised, but she’s funny!” I Used to Be Funny is authentically heartbreaking and hilarious. A triumph for Ally Pankiw, Rachel Sennott, and indie Canadian cinema.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.