IN A WORLD… Review: Lake Bell’s Feature Debut is a Refreshing, Graceful Stumble

Imagine a world where complex gender politics and dynamics are approached honestly. It's kind of nice.

In a World..., written, directed by, and starring Childrens Hospital's Lake Bell, is one of the most refreshing and surprising indies released this year. Bell plays Carol Solomon, daughter of legendary voice over actor Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), the kind of guy who, like Don LaFontaine, has been breathing life into movie trailers for decades. Carol is trying to make a name for herself in the business, thus she ditches her dad's last name and attempts to carve out her own chunk of the voice over pie. But as her father and some colleagues remind her, audiences aren't craving a female sound in their movie trailers, which calls to mind recent comments made by comic book creators at the 2013 TCAs -- when asked why there aren't more stories about women and minorities, these white male writers and visionaries replied that there just isn't a demand for it, and blamed readers for the lack of diversity. 

And so it goes with In a World... -- of course there's no demand without supply. Bell stumbles gracefully through her feature film debut, intertwining a story about Carol's sister, Dani (the amazing Michaela Watkins, who deserves way more attention for her incomparable talent), and the quasi-affair that almost destroys her marriage with her husband Moe (Rob Corddry). And while that storyline is frank and beautiful in its execution, it doesn't entirely blend well with the rest of the film. If anything, I'd love to see their plot expanded to a full-length movie, but I'm not sure it belongs here.

The Watkins/Corddry plot is really the only gripe, as it makes the film feel overstuffed and scatter-brained, and doesn't enhance the film's central themes of female success in a male-dominated world and a woman who is trying to make her stubborn, single-minded father proud. The relationship between Carol and Sam (and to a lesser extend, Dani and Sam) is wonderfully layered and complex. Bell doesn't spend too much time elaborating on the absence of Carol and Dani's mother, but the heated exchange between daughters and father at an awkward family dinner is powerful enough to give us decades of history in just a few short minutes without feeling too expository.

Carol struggles to stake a claim for herself with the talents that her father helped nurture and yet stubbornly refuses to support, instead choosing to back a male rival (Ken Marino) over his own daughter. It's hard enough for a woman to make it in a male-dominated field (and aren't the majority of all career fields male-dominated?), but Carol must also contend with her own father and a rival -- and things get a little messy when she sleeps with the latter of the two. Instead of taking the melodramatic and formulaic approach, Bell has a keen eye for the complexity of relationships, both familial and romantic, and just as her character won't let a little sex get in the way of her goals, Bell isn't going to let romantic and sexual plot diversions muddy her film with maudlin BS.

One of the best moments of the film is a late cameo from Geena Davis, who shows up to lend the story even more thematic heft when Carol is given a job because she is a woman -- as if there is some quota to be met, or that women are a pawn in a game of gender politics. What audiences -- and people -- need to be reminded of is that sexism isn't a one-way street. The very equality we fight for can sometimes be used against us. Carol gets a job not because she was the best, but because she is a woman, and it's a great example of the way our gender can work against us in unexpected ways. Davis herself heads up the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which tracks representations of women in film and television, and works to promote more positive female figures in media aimed at children, as well as to reduce negative female stereotypes in media in a male-dominated industry. It's such a perfect bit of cameo casting that really highlights Bell's thoughtfulness and awareness.

In a World... is far from perfect and doesn't quite have the laser-focus of a more seasoned writer and director, but even the most awkward and fumbling moments of the film are a joy to watch and experience -- although Bell doesn't have a firm grasp on her narrative structure, she's found that sweet spot where the heart and brain connect, and she does excellent work of guiding her audience there, too.