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Closing the Distance: Irony & Sincerity in "L for Leisure"

Exploring how this observational American indie—now playing on MUBI—navigates around farce and mockery and achieves sincerity and affection.
L for Leisure, directed by Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman, follows an assortment of graduate & postgraduate academics as they laze away, morning to night, season to season, on vacation. If this summary makes the film sound suspicious, the style can have the effect of deepening that suspicion. There are two obvious things about the film, neither of them especially promising: the form suggests documentary, the acting (and writing) suggests farce, parody. This combination can lead one to expect harmless self-deprecation and secret self-satisfaction. But L for Leisure is a sincere film, despite its mockery-enabling surface. The directors can only pretend to make fun of their characters for so long before giving it up and inviting us to share in their affection for this insular milieu. 
The film is basically a comedy, a dry one, and maybe a cheesy, dorky one. Some sitcom conventions stand-out. There’s the running gag, maybe more like a shared catch-phrase, of characters stating, quite monotone, “I’m so mellow”. It’s a line written to be quoted. There are effortless visual gags: a reasonably buff guy dressed fully in rollerskating safety gear; a pair of brothers with an unreasonable difference in height. There’s the interesting tendency to cut from characters saying something to those characters doing that thing. In an early scene at a vacation house, one guy finds two bags of nutmeg. Another guy chimes in “you can smoke nutmeg”. So they all smoke nutmeg.
This last effect winds up being rather important for the film, a way to start scenes despite the absence of a narrative grip per se. I would be remiss not to mention here the score by John Atkinson, a rhythmic electronic piece that pops up whenever some fun vacation activity begins. It becomes part of a pattern-recognition game: whenever the characters decide to do something, a montage of them doing that thing, set to the score, will surely follow. The montages themselves can seem a little conventional on first glance—a lot of cutaway shots to environs, some observational details, b-roll. Tree branches, lakes, dogs with jean jackets. These montages are saved by their surprisingly rigorous adherence to chronology, to documenting locations at different times, to showing us the dimming of the day. I started out resisting (honest: I have no natural fondness for electronic music) but soon let myself be swept away. And although the reliance on an essentially artificial way to start scenes is rather eccentric, it pays off rather well when it’s used to motivate unusual location changes—not often do American Indies go to Iceland. 
The acting is stylized: a sort of stoic comedic thing. It’s easy to laugh at these characters, and you will. But the directors don’t force your hand. There are two solo scenes in the movie where a character monologues to the viewer, and it is in these scenes where it first becomes obvious that the directors actually adore these people. In the first one, a student complains to her offscreen confidant that her research into tree spirits is going horribly. Not because she can’t find any tree spirits, but because there are too many, and she’s too lazy. The scene is very amusing. But, you know, I can identify with her. Nothing in her expression tells me I shouldn’t. 
My favorite scene in the film is set at night—and this is generally a very sunny film. At a drivethrough, a group of male academics picks up a group of attractive teens. An impromptu roadside party is initiated. The teens appear to be part of a dance group, and oblige us with a dance routine. The academics all wind up topless. In the morning some jocks drive by and the teens leave for practice. It’s really a ridiculous scene, and theoretically quite humorous. But it plays out rather unnervingly. It really is barely visible—you can never tell if the characters are comfortable with the situation. You wonder if they’re looking for an orgy. The stylized acting finally enables surrealism as the two insular, stereotyped groups together indulge in an ambivalent fantasy of naked yearning.
This scene winds up having quite unexpected repercussions in the scenes that follow, to the point where you could suspect this was a narrative film all along. Horn & Kalman achieve a real sense of balance: they never wind up pitying the disoriented grad students, but they also don’t ignore the special, unexpected emotional hurt caused by the escapade with the teens. This mid- film deployment of psychological continuity has the effect of putting the rest of the film in relief: it clarifies the empathetic project of the directors, it makes one re-evaluate the structural ambitions of the film. The many distancing effects of the film start to feel like part of an ambitious aesthetic plan, one the plays up a self-aware, bemused attitude while secretly pursuing a direct emotional agenda. Irony and sincerity come part and parcel.
Put it this way: if the film works for you, you’ll be ready to agree that sometimes boogie boarding is a foremost necessity. 
If L for Leisure starts out rather like a by-the-numbers observational film, content to just show things its directors find worth showing, it winds up a very good observational film, skilled at finding ways to convince its audience that those things are worth seeing. What starts out a satire of people with meaningless problems ends up an ode to people with meaningless problems. We expect something intellectual and belabored and far too self-conscious and instead find ourselves deeply moved. And we can laugh about it afterwards, too.

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