When a family of painfully self-obsessed yuppies is torn apart by the arrival of a blank-faced young siren, the result is part comedy and part hipster horror film.
At the start of Nobody Walks, 20something New York artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby) gets off a plane in Los Angeles and promptly gets into a heavy make-out session with the handsome man putting her bags in his car. Right there in the parking garage, he begins unbuckling his belt and she puts her hand on his chest and tells him that it was really great talking to him on the plane, but.... He cocks a “can’t blame a guy for trying” look at her, and then gives her a lift. It’s an innocuous and seemingly funny scene, the kind of fumbling comedy you would expect from cowriter Lena Dunham.
The shots that follow are just as innocuous: Martine digs the LA scenery through her sunglasses and camera lens. It looks like yet another scene-setting montage of Southland palm trees and the Randy’s Donuts sign, but the film is also establishing the pattern for Martine, an apparently vacuous interloper who understands other people about as much as she understands bugs.
Bugs are, in fact, the reason that Martine has flown out to California: she's making a short experimental film about crawling ants, and -- as we learn through a few hints of backstory -- she's been invited to stay at a house belonging to Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt), a psychologist acquaintance whose husband is a sound editor who could help her complete the project. Once this editor, Peter (John Krasinski), brings Martine inside his sound room, he pretty much immediately finds the erotic side of recording the sound of running water and squishing fruit, and Martine passively accepts his advances, even as his children are playing elsewhere in the house. The room is soundproofed, after all.
There are hints throughout the film of the self-aware, honest humor that made Dunham’s Tiny Furniture such a welcome surprise. Nobody Walks gently lampoons the Silver Lake Scene in Julie and Peter's performance as post-hipster yuppie parents, and also Martine's embodiment of the just-looking-for-my-voice type of artist. But the movie, co-written and directed by Ry Russo-Young, isn't only a critical gloss on stereotypes. The scene where Martine tries to direct two actors in the dialogue she’s scribbled for her ant film is painful in its cluelessness, but it's also the moment where the movie begins to pivot towards something darker.
Martine's demeanor alternates between dismay and vague confusion. This may be a function of Thirlby’s limitations as an actor, as the usual flatness of her performances is here mapped onto a character who’s close to a sociopath. Martine can’t tell her actors how to say their lines because she doesn't know how people talk. When Peter's assistant David (Rhys Wakefield) starts hitting on her too, Martine looks increasingly ill equipped to deal with adversity (expected or unexpected). But as the ensuing chaos incites still other adverse effects, not least being the disquiet of Julie’s teenage daughter Kolt (India Ennenga), the movie turns less comic and more frightening.
Still, Russo-Young camouflages the expanding tensions with a visual style that is less like Rob Zombie's than Noah Baumbach's. Nobody Walks affects a sun-dappled, grainy look, not only alluding to the post-Greenberg style of LA hipster cinema -- if you could shoot a film with Instagram, it would look something like this -- but also giving Martine cover. Julie is so caught up with standard-issue issues, like having her ex-husband (Dylan McDermott, bringing some noise to this overly mild ensemble) over for dinner and dealing with the amorous attention of a patient, that she doesn’t notice her current husband's growing obsession with the girl staying in the pool house.
While there is texture a-plenty in Nobody Walks, the movie never advances beyond a minor key. Like the woman at its center, it seems to see everything from a distance, and doesn’t want to get too involved.