starring Ana Scotney, Chris Alosio, Jillian Nguyen, Sam Cotton
written by Eli Kent, Michelle Savill
directed by Michelle Savill
by Walter Chaw Michelle Savill's hyphenate debut Millie Lies Low is a deeply uncomfortable update of Laurent Cantet's Time Out that deals with issues of diasporic disaffection, the pressures of satisfying social expectations in the age of panic, and the navigation of identity when identity has become branding for institutions both personal and corporate. It's an everything burger of existential dread, in other words, an extraordinarily competent horror film about a lie meant to hide vulnerability that becomes many lies that leave our hero, ironically, increasingly vulnerable. She's Millie (Ana Scotney), a Kiwi architectural student who has won an internship at a prestigious firm in New York but has a panic attack while the plane's on the tarmac and learns, once demanding to be let off, that she can't get back on without a new ticket she can't afford. Unable to accept that she's made a shambles of her opportunity, she leans into the deception that she's made it to the Big Apple with Photoshopped social-media posts and Zooms, where she manufactures big-city backgrounds from Wellington alleyways. In disguise, she stalks the classmates she's left behind, like Tom Sawyer haunting his own funeral--all while slinking around hiding from her best friend, Carolyn (Jillian Nguyen), her bro boyfriend (Chris Alosio), and her housekeeper mom (Rachel House).
At first glance one of those frustrating movies that could be solved if Millie just confessed to one person what's going on, Millie Lies Low is, it turns out, entirely about how hard it is to tell the truth when the truth is related to feelings of self-worth. Millie is a complex protagonist. She makes terrible decisions, she's a compulsive liar, and she's hostile towards the people who care about her despite her obvious and profligate shortcomings. She resents her mother sacrificing everything for Millie's future; resents Carolyn for being a better architect than she is (and so steals Carolyn's ideas for her scholarship application); and is withdrawn from her boyfriend because she doesn't respect him and most likely fears the kind of intimacy required of a serious relationship. She refuses to admit she's had a panic attack and would prefer to gaslight others than confirm for them what she fears about herself. Late in the game, it's revealed that Millie was born in the Philippines and then moved to New Zealand--a transplantation her mother claims left Millie rootless somehow, incapable of the sort of trust needed to anchor oneself to a place and its people. I think that's part of the puzzle that is Millie. The rest is as unsolvable as any human being: Millie isn't a character with components that fit into a coherent whole, but a person with mismatched parts who can't be solved because she's not a problem.
Millie thinks of herself as a problem, though. She cribs other peoples' ideas because she's afraid hers aren't good enough, other peoples' words because she worries the way she expresses herself could never compete with the poetry of what she hears. She has sold Carolyn her car, telling her friend it doesn't matter if she can't pay her right away--a moment of superiority through largesse, it seems. But Millie, upon her return, steals her car back and uses it as collateral to secure money from a fast-loan company that rescinds their commitment when a perusal of Millie's social media reveals her plans to flee the country. Millie's lies compound until she finds herself hiding in a closet, badly in need of a toilet, as her best friend sleeps with her boyfriend. The wonder of Millie Lies Low is how much we root for Millie despite her self-destructive behaviour. I wonder if enough of us have friends like her, or have been versions of her, that we manufacture empathy for her plight. She tells a lie because she's ashamed and then doesn't have the sense of security and self to own her essential brokenness. There are no villains in this piece; the monster is self-loathing. Even usual bogeys, like the first-gen immigrant laments of racism and alienation, are secondary concerns to how all of us go through a period where we think the worst of ourselves and can't imagine a more devastating outcome than to give the ones we need the most another reason to abandon us to our vile selves. Millie Lies Low is a work of real humanism, an Agnes Varda portrait of anxiety. I can't wait to see what Savill does next.