Keep the Lights On

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/05/12 19:27:19

"You keep hoping things will change, but..."
3 stars (Just Average)

"Keep the Lights On" is the sort of semi-autobiographical movie that just goes to show that one's real-life drama, even if translated to the screen without a hitch, is not necessarily compelling for others. Director Ira Sachs goes for honesty here, and does well by it, but perhaps could have added something else to the mix.

The Sachs surrogate is Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt), a documentary filmmaker originally from Denmark but living and working in Manhattan. As the film starts, it's 1998, and a lonely Erik meets Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth) on a phone sex line. Erik is lonely despite being close with his sister Karen (Paprika Steen) and collaborator Claire (Julianne Nicholson), so he and Paul are soon together, but Paul's issues with secrecy and addiction will put a strain on the relationship.

Not enough of a strain to actually end it, though, so Erik and the audience are in for ten years of ups and downs, and if you've ever had a friend who was in an extended bad relationship, this is kind of like that. It's not always in a crisis, but the problems aren't improving, so it just runs in a loop that may be a sort of agony for the ones involved but is mostly frustrating for those on the outside looking in. That's where Keep the Lights On spends most of its time - Paul's an addict, Erik's immature, and periodic two year jumps don't show much in the way of change.

Without much in the way of big events, the picture must survive on small details. Sachs and company do rather well there. Sachs puts things in the background and lets them progress, creating a sort of parallax effect as the characters' lives move forward in some areas but stand still in others. Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias opt for showing the passage of time that way rather than obvious checkpoints (there's no 9/11 scene despite the timeframe), and it mostly works. There are a number of small gems, like a scene that could have been an obnoxious shouting match defusing nicely when Erik points out to Claire that secrecy often becomes instinctive very early when growing up gay.

That's perhaps Thure Lindhardt's best moment, though he's impressive in general. Immaturity can be a tricky thing for an actor to communicate - it's very easy to overdo it - but Lindhardt starts Erik right at the level where it's kind of annoying but won't push the audience away, and does fairly well in smoothly dialing it back as the film goes on. There's never a big change from scene to scene, but he is a notably different guy by the end. Zachary Booth, perhaps, could show a bit more of why Erik is attracted to Paul in the first place - even before the movie ends, Paul being a jerk sticks in ones head more than anything appealing, but he shows the tension that Paul carries around and does a pretty good downward spiral. Paprika Steen and Miguel del Toro are good if not memorable as Erik's sister and potential next boyfriend; Julianne Nicholson is a notch or two above that as his best friend.

This movie will likely make the type of moviegoer that gets frustrated just observing characters "being" rather than "doing" fidget; it can seem like an hour and a half of holding pattern. The execution mostly keeps it on the right side of frustrating, which is good, but both the filmmakers and the audience likely hoped for more.

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