GFF2023 Review: The Ordinaries

Year: 2023

Runtime: 120 minutes

Director: Sophie Linnenbaum

Writers: Sophie Linnebaum and Michael Fetter Nathansky

Stars: Fine Sendel, Jule Bowe, Henning Peker

By Calum Cooper

Sophie Linnenbaum’s “The Ordinaries” (2023) is like stepping into the moviemaking equivalent of wonderland. Its narrative, influences and creative choices are dizzying with ideas. On aesthetics alone it is a borderline hypnotic watch. But as a social commentary it is as poignant as its presentation is wild.

Set in a heavily meta world in which everyone lives by the laws of screenplay writing and film jargon – e.g. jump cuts, music, motivation, outtakes etc – Paula Feinmann (Fine Sendel) is a Supporting Character studying hard at school so she may become a Main Character like her absent father. When visiting the film archives to try and get inspiration from her father’s past performances, she finds his file mysteriously missing. Even though her mother Elisa (Jule Bowe) insists with deadpan certainty that her father was a Main Character, Paula suspects she may be lying. Thus she sets off to find answers, a journey which brings her into direct conflict with this world’s status quo of Main Characters on top, Outtakes on bottom and Supporting Characters drifting in the heterotopic middle somewhere.

From the opening scenes, the film distinguishes itself as self-referential by presenting the characters as aware of their designed roles within the film. It breaks so many fourth walls it’s a wonder the frame is still intact. But this daring approach on the part of the script, written by Linnenbaum and Michael Fetter Nathansky, is what gives its lost protagonist story such a vivid breath of fresh air. The entire spectacle is an ode to the filmmaking experience, but it cleverly uses the analogies and technicalities commonly associated with this creative process in order to provide a wider commentary on individuality and how we fit in spite of a systemic hierarchy insistent on division – issues that, as Linnenbaum has observed, are becoming far more pronounced in today’s world, particularly with Right-wing movements that live and die on us vs them platforms.

If one were to watch “The Ordinaries” purely to tick off a movie references bingo card, they would have a field day. Although the visual style, from the costume to production designs, is largely inspired by the Golden Age of Hollywood from the 40s and 50s, there are nods to films from across the spectrum, notable examples being “Forrest Gump” (1994), “The Shining” (1980) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999). By bringing attention to the various components that make a film – and how such components have evolved through time – “The Ordinaries” becomes a delightfully playful experiment. Its approach to editing, sound mixing and even narrative structure is informed by its own metaness, allowing itself to have barrels of fun with each element when Paula is up against a conflict, or has to overcome an obstacle in the story. Its commitment to its own unorthodox self-awareness makes it a well-refined piece of craftsmanship.

“Sophie Linnenbaum’s “The Ordinaries” (2023) is like stepping into the moviemaking equivalent of wonderland. Its narrative, influences and creative choices are dizzying with ideas.”

This whirlpool of creativity is in service to the sociopolitical themes behind Linnenbaum’s idea – themes which are as captivating as the tone is singularly odd. The tagline for the film asks the question “have you ever felt like a supporting character in your own life”? It’s a thought provoking question with connotations of loneliness and aimlessness. Paula is effectively having an identity crisis throughout the film, turning to unknowns as they offer more possibilities for comfort than the brutalist look and feel of the world she inhabits. The worldbuilding of “The Ordinaries” feels akin to Boots Reilly’s “Sorry to Bother You” (2018) in that, despite the quirks of the setting, it is directly reflective of the class structure and how the elite few at the top – Main Characters – have all the power over the masses of working class – or Supporting Characters – needed to make the system work in the first place.

It’s a resounding political commentary on how the supposed status quo can be exploited to incite division, while leaving those unsure how to navigate its structure lost. That the setting is directly reliant on the awareness of screenplay and moviemaking logic serves to only enhance these elements. But underneath all this boldness is quite a poignant tale on how one finds themselves and others in an unforgiving world. Sendel’s performance as the anxiety laden but stubborn Paula anchors all of this wild critical energy in the form of a compelling heroine whose nuances and insecurities make her the ideal window into the crazy world on screen. Sometimes it takes something almost indescribable in order to create the best assessment on the toxicity of our contemporary times.

As a product of pure creative expression, “The Ordinaries” is a stellar achievement. The love to the joys and difficulties of filmmaking are abundantly clear through the eccentrically unorthodox presentation. But it’s Linnenbaum’s attention to detail with her character work and sociopolitical criticisms woven within the strange storytelling that make “The Ordinaries” such a brilliant feature film. Original, funny, strange, and ultimately powerful in its convictions, this is sure to be a highlight from this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.


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