Kirt Gunn’s debut feature, Lovely by Surprise (2007) is by turns baffling, sweet, infuriating and tragic. It’s an oddity that will leave viewers thinking of Charlie Kaufman and, perhaps, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). In any event, the fourth wall tumbles down.
Carrie Preston (True Blood) stars as Marian, a writer whose ‘writer’s block’ has driven her to seek advice from her mentor (and former lover), Jackson (Austin Pendleton). We are subsequently drawn into Marian’s strange literary world of two characters, Mopekey (Dallas Roberts) and Humkin (Michael Chamus) who exist in her mind and on the page as two friends living on a landlocked boat, with only milk and cereal for sustenance and a radio to give them knowledge of the world. Marian insists that her characters are seeping into ‘reality’ with the knowledge she gives them and feels she needs to further their experience. A dismissive Jackson encourages a reluctant Marian to create ‘conflict’ and kill one of her characters — indeed, he assures her this is the only way that she’ll overcome her ‘block’.
In another part of Gunn’s world, Bob (brilliantly played by Reg Rogers), is a car salesman who grieves the loss of his wife and struggles to connect with others, including his daughter, Mimi (Lena Lamer). He repeatedly persuades customers that they don’t need to buy a car and that they should go home to be with their loved ones, something he is singularly incapable of doing himself.
Meanwhile, Marian takes Jackson’s advice and ‘kills the better part’, betraying herself and her novel and unwittingly letting her characters escape into the ‘real’ world. This leads to a meeting between Bob and Humkin (who now appears to be writing his own narrative) and which ultimately sets them both on new paths.
Lovely by Surprise will leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads, but it stays with you long after the credits. Both the visuals and the score are beautiful and it deals with coming-to-terms with loss in such an unusual way that you can’t help but be drawn-in.
Above all, Lovely by Surprise, deals with humanity’s need for communication, be it something as seemingly simple as a writer struggling to complete their ‘baby’ with love rather than conflict, or a father’s desperate, heartbreaking attempt to communicate his grief to the world. Enigmatic, puzzling, but still lovely.
Lovely By Surprise is out now on DVD.