Mr. Roosevelt, the indie debut from Noël Wells, is a masterpiece



6th January 2018

Words by Laura La Rosa

Noël Wells is the infectious talent in and behind her directorial feature debut Mr. Roosevelt. Having won multiple awards on the festival circuit, the film was quickly picked up by distributor Netflix, becoming one of this summer's most loved new releases.

The story centres on Emily, an aspiring comedic performer played by Wells, who abruptly returns from Los Angeles to Austin to farewell her dying cat, “Mr. Roosevelt”. Broke and conscious of her underwhelming trajectory, Emily takes up the offer to stay with her ex-boyfriend Eric and his new girlfriend Celeste; the perfect pair whose curated lives resemble a “Pinterest board come to life”. 

Shot on 16mm film, Mr. Roosevelt pays homage to budget cinematography cemented in indie roots, hinting at a nicely done collaboration between the cine, Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, and Wells who is an analogue-loving, exhibiting photographer herself.  

Wells’ writing and directing cleverly explores themes of discontent, inadequacy, connection, friendship and forgiveness. It is anything but a feat of millennial navel-gazing, rather, a story of being confined by a surge of unjustness in the face of irritatingly nice people. Each of whom - we soon learn - are grappling their own set of insecurities at life’s prescribed junction of 30-something success versus failure.

At a time where screenplays are leveraging trending notions of equality, a scene that has Emily flaring up over being described as “quirky” successfully interjects arguably mainstream feminist thought. Though, Emily’s portrayal of righteousness is well paced and feels organic - a welcomed relief amid a rising screen culture of contrived ‘wokeness’ too often done poorly.

For me, Emily’s outward backlash to being summed up as quirky brought back memories of dull dates with men who thought my bangs were worthy of conversation, enlisting me as a “folky and unusual kind of girl” while I did my best not to reveal my boredom. Emily, however, struggles to conceal her feelings. As does Wells in that much of what is ‘said’ throughout the film is proportionally nuanced – it is never overdone though, and any predictability sits somewhere between wistful and hilarious.   

The film’s greatness aside, even the best reviews sought to credit Wells’ body of work by reducing it as a logical alternative to manic pixie girl depiction. As though there is a mere binary in terms of works coming out of self-made, female filmmakers, rather than an industry that relentlessly seeks to block pathways for women - an industry that leaves us all high and dry for female-led content on the basis of the age-old and repeatedly defeated trope of ‘merit’.

But despite largely male critics rubbing their sore heads and trying to neatly contextualise the successful reception of Mr. Roosevelt, the film is an inevitable progression for Wells, an artist whose work will no doubt continue to speak for itself.

Mr. Roosevelt puts a feel-good spin on life’s disappointments, reminding us all that failure is subjective and easily forgotten with a letting down of one’s hair in that magical way they do in the movies. Particularly at the tail-end of a holiday season that sees many of us recovering from a brief return to our roots only to be reminded of who we once were. Or worse, who we were so certain we’d grow up to be.

Laura La Rosa