Sensitively written, nicely shot, expertly acted, and intelligently ambiguous, “Nobody Walks” still manages to send you out with a shrug. What’s missing from this tale of privileged West Coast infidelity? Urgency, maybe — a sense that the dramatic stakes matter as much to the filmmakers as to their characters. Instead, director Ry Russo-Young backs off from the messy, in-your-face heat of her 2009 festival favorite, “You Won’t Miss Me” and seems content to coolly observe.
The setting is a funky, upscale home nestled in the foothills of LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood; experienced audiences will immediately recognize the territory from Lisa Cholodenko films like “Laurel Canyon” and “The Kids Are All Right.” In that home live an attractively chill married couple, sound engineer Peter (John Krasinski, in a welcome change-up from “The Office”) and psychotherapist Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), along with Kolt (India Ennenga), Julie’s teenage daughter from an earlier marriage, and the couple’s young son.
An outsider arrives for an extended stay: Martine (Olivia Thirlby), a young experimental filmmaker from New York who has agreed to work as Peter’s assistant in exchange for him helping out on her latest project. She’s a doe-eyed downtown gamine with fashion sense and a boyish bob. In short, trouble. Peter can’t take his eyes off her; some of us who’ve been following Thirlby in movies like “Juno” and “The Wackness” know how he feels.
Things play out as you might expect, but Russo-Young and her co-writer, the celebrated Lena Dunham of HBO’s “Girls,” do something curious: They refuse to judge their characters. Martine is both a homewrecker and a naïf, Peter a creep and a decent guy, Julie an earth mother and a judger. The character of Kolt is emblematic: A gawky adolescent who’s feeling her sexuality but is unsure what to do with it, she spends the movie hashing out her feelings for three different men: her father’s hipster assistant (Rhys Wakefield), a sweetly nerdy classmate (Sam Lerner), and her flirtatious Italian tutor (Emanuele Secci). Actually, Kolt’s plot line is the most interesting in “Nobody Walks,” but it’s used primarily as counterpoint to the main story.
What’s Russo-Young getting at here? That marriages can drift too easily from contentment to predictability to cheating? That an interloper like Martine will always end up outside the gates? That everyone has his or her reasons? The film is a character study and social portrait that lacks the acid truth-telling Dunham brings to her own work, and it doesn’t allow us to laugh both at and with its characters, as Cholodenko’s movies do. “Nobody Walks” — the title comes from LA’s car-centric culture but hints at a domestic apocalypse that never arrives — only insists on the foolishness and humanity of its characters. It’s just unable to make them very interesting.