There’s only so much twee preciousness some people can handle, so I’m just going to throw out a few cultural references up front to send the haters running: Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, Miranda July. I can say with total confidence that the surrealist coming of age comedy Girl Asleep is not a by-the-books exercise in twee whimsy that closely resembles any of those particular cultural markers, but I do believe you need to have an enthusiasm for that thematic territory to take delight in its many charms. Romantic awkwardness, paper mache costumes, animated album covers & photographs, piles of origami birds: Girl Asleep is sure to roll many an eye in its Etsy shop dreamscape, but I can’t relate to anyone who would dismiss a film outright for being intensely manicured in its visual palette, yet impressively loose in its blurred divide between reality & fantasy. After championing little-loved titles like The Future, Mood Indigo, and Gentlemen Broncos in the past I may not have the best track record in distinguishing which twee movies are going to delight or annoy general audiences, but I found that Girl Asleep easily fit in the upper tier of that genre, as divisive as it is.
A young teenager (Bethany Whitmore, who provided some voice work for the excellent forgotten gem Mary and Max), suffers a perfect storm of coming of age anxieties on the cusp of her 15th birthday. She moves to a new town. Her parents bicker loudly over their dwindling passion. Her older sister acts out in a way that makes her invisible. The popular girls at her new school bully her into acting the way they see fit and the only boy who’s nice to her wants to become “more than just friends.” All of this culminates in the disastrous pressure put on her when her parents invite the entire school to a birthday celebration she does not want to attend, especially not in the homemade dress they pick out for her. Unable to ease her anxiety entirely through her stress origami, she naps a large chunk of the party away & works through her inner turmoil in a surrealist dreamscape where she turns the journey from girlhood to adulthood into a literal trek across a physical threshold. In her dreamworld her dad takes the form of a grotesque booger monster who wants to “protect” her & make corny jokes into infinity. Her mother is a frigid ice queen. Her romantic stirrings take on overwhelming nightmare vibes. She fights the popular girls with physical force instead of verbal sparring (not unlike in the ludicrous Jane Austen bastardization Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Girl Asleep filters the nerve-racking expectations & pressures of “becoming a woman” through a handmade surrealist fantasy realm and the results are consistently endearing, surprising, and ambitiously unhinged. It’s a simple story with a familiar tone that could have easily been mishandled (*cough* Me and Earl and the Dying Girl *cough*), but the film somehow pulls through to make for a delightful, idiosyncratic experience.
Something I greatly respect Girl Asleep for is its disinterest in establishing a hard dividing line between its reality & its fantasy. The film traffics in a disco era psychedelia, complete with Soul Train dance breaks and earth tone sprites hiding in its brown stone walls & wood paneling, long before its protagonist indulges in an angry party nap. I occasionally found its squared-off television format aspect ratio to be a distraction that undercut the expansiveness of some of its individual shots, but my initial expectation of that choice differentiating between “reality” and a wider aspect ratio for the dreamworld thankfully never came to be. Instead, the whole film worked as one long fantasy piece where the rules of its loose grasp on what’s “really” happening were constantly shifted to fit the mood & intent of the moment. Often, when films choose to incorporate dreamscape surrealism into the personal growth crises of their protagonists, they’re careful to distinguish a barrier between the two realms. Girl Asleep waves off the necessity of those barriers with an infectiously flippant confidence. It allows its choreographed disco freakouts & Moonrise Kingdom costumes to bleed into its real world high school melodrama and the result is a thorough delight & a constant surprise.
Again, this film is going to be a love it or hate it experience depending on the audience’s stomach for twee whimsy & sweetness. Personally, I was eating out of its hand for the entire runtime and left the theater smiling, fully sated. I’m trying to think of other titles from this year that came across this imaginative & this aggressively feminine, and the only two that immediately came to mind were Nerve & The Dressmaker, two films I absolutely adored. Coming of age comedies are a dime a dozen & many will likely claim that the whimsical surrealism on display here is nothing too new or too inventive, but I found Girl Asleep to be a wildly anarchic & imaginative fairy tale despite its familiar framework. I’m admittedly a huge sucker for dream logic in my film narratives & have a high tolerance for twee as an aesthetic, but I honestly found it to be one of the most memorably uplifting and surprisingly adventurous cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. Girl Asleep is likely to find the right audience once enough people can get the chance to latch onto its dog whistle charms and I sincerely hope it earns the longevity it deserves.