It’s always a welcome surprise to encounter a fresh face who’s also a natural screen presence, which is very much the case with the captivating Maisy Stella in My Old Ass. Not to undersell the newcomer’s individuality, but I kept getting a crunchy granola version of Clueless-era Alicia Silverstone, which is no faint praise. The fact that Stella is often bouncing off Aubrey Plaza in peerless sardonic form just sweetens the deal. Megan Park’s enjoyable second feature is a warm blend of comedy, romance and whimsical collapsed-time fantasy, albeit grounded in the protagonist’s real world.
Not since Toy Story 3 wielded its power to reduce grown-ass adults to puddles of tears has a movie been so in touch with the tender feelings associated with leaving home and saying a definitive goodbye to childhood, wistfully contemplating what we take with us and what we leave behind. Writer-director Park spins a slight variation on that theme by advocating to savor the pleasures of the here and now in that transitional moment, while we still can.
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The fantastical part is the result of a mushroom trip, during which Elliott (Stella), who’s turning 18 and is about to head off to college, gulps hallucinogenic tea with her forever friends Ro (Kerrice Brooks) and Ruthie (Maddie Ziegler). “May you experience a new level of consciousness or some shit tonight,” says Ro, who scored the bag of shrooms from a dubious source, explaining that they come from South America. “Or Africa?”
Just as Elliott is starting to grumble that the tea hasn’t kicked in, she blinks to find Plaza’s character sitting on the same log by a campfire. She discovers in disbelief that the stranger is her future self at age 39.
Much of the initial humor comes from teenage Elliott’s dismay to learn that two decades down the track, she’s single and a PhD student, rather than being married, having multiple children and working at her dream job. Older Elliott is defensive about where she’s at, but in between subtle digs at youthful naïveté, she tells her junior alter ego, “The only thing you can’t get back is time.” She also warns her to stay away from guys named Chad. Young Elliott just thinks she’s having a bad trip.
Elliott is beyond ready to leave her lakeside home in Muskoka, Ontario, anxious to move to Toronto and get her life started. “I can’t be a third-generation cranberry farmer in a tiny town!” She’s also only ever been attracted to women, as demonstrated by her hot farewell fling with local barista Chelsea (Alexandra River). So when a Toronto undergrad working on her family’s farm for the summer named — drumroll — Chad (Percy Hynes White) saunters into her world and Elliott finds herself irritated by and attracted to him in equal measure, she’s confused.
“Am I bi?” she wonders. Nonbinary Ro’s take: “Just because you like a man doesn’t make you any less queer. I don’t think any less of you.”
The facility in Park’s screenplay for dialogue that’s funny without trying too hard is one of the movie’s key strengths, along with character relationships fully inhabited by the fine ensemble, whether it’s family or friends. Even touches that border on cutesy, like a second shroom experiment that fails to bring back Older Elliott but instead plonks Chad into her childhood Justin Bieber obsession, are actually pretty hilarious.
Following the much darker grief drama The Fallout, a prize winner at SXSW, actress-turned-director Park shows an agreeably light touch here that serves the material well.
Just to make Elliott’s muddled feelings weirder, she finds the name “My Old Ass” listed in her phone contacts with a number and discovers she can just dial up her older self for advice. What she gets is sterner anti-Chad caution — though Older Elliott won’t say why he’s off-limits — and a nudge to make time for her family. It’s in those scenes that the movie navigates a supple shift into poignancy, especially in Elliott’s gorgeous conversations with her mother (Maria Dizzia).
Her younger brothers each bring their own comic energy. Preteen Spencer (Carter Trozzolo) is infatuated with Saoirse Ronan, which prompts a priceless sight gag, while high schooler Max (Seth Isaac Johnson) is indifferent to his sister, believing he’s everything she hates. Elliott’s efforts to bond with prickly Max on the golf course disclose alarming news about a major family decision of which she was unaware. Her dad (Al Goulem) says they tried to tell her, but it’s always hard to pin her down.
Developments accelerate as Elliott reckons with the inevitable change of the upheaval at home — her feelings amplified by the breathtaking natural beauty of the setting — while also becoming more and more flummoxed by why Chad must be avoided when he appears to be eminently likable and uncommonly kind. All this is made worse by Older Elliott’s unavailability when she remains unresponsive to calls and texts for a few days.
When she does reappear, it’s played for comedy at first as she steps out from behind a tree like a pretend spy. But the scene becomes a stealth emotional shakeup marked by superb work from Plaza, who switches off her default deadpan setting and eases into melancholy in a moment that’s quietly shattering.
Produced by Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment, My Old Ass is a slender film, but it’s so nicely judged and so infused with a generosity of spirit toward all its characters, across the generations, that its sentimentality acquires substance.
The central romance is beautifully played. (And no, this is not a movie about queer women turning straight. It’s about exploring sexuality as a natural part of youth.) Stella is never better than when Elliott is dancing around the impulse to confess her feelings to Chad. Sure, getting caught in the rain together is a cliché, but the way it unfolds here brings a smile.
Stella has previously been seen with her sister, Lennon Stella, playing singing siblings on the country music series Nashville. In her first leading role, she commands the screen with wit and charm and terrific timing; her ease and realness make her appealing, even when she’s being abrasive. And her chemistry with Hynes White (best known from Netflix’s Wednesday) is lovely. He gives flirty Chad a natural humor that grows more awkward as he becomes emotionally invested. With his long tangle of hair and gangly beanpole physique, Chad looks like he belongs in the woods or the lake, where they often meet.
Plaza’s delivery in a part largely played over phone calls gives maximum value to every bit of dialogue, including a very funny signoff that closes My Old Ass with a jokey intergenerational embrace. But it’s earlier in the movie, when she’s around in the flesh, that Older Elliott drops a throwaway line that seems like it’s casually acknowledging a world in chaos and counseling Elliott to make the most of it while she can: “Eat all the salmon now while it’s still around.”
That kind of sums up the movie’s gentle humanistic ethos — urging its core audience to take advantage of the simpler time before adult responsibilities and complications; to be “young and dumb” and make mistakes; to be open to wherever experience takes them; and to receive gifts even if they won’t last.
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