SIFF REVIEW: My Effortless Brilliance

The phrase “You either love [something/someone] or hate [something/someone]” is not only overused, it is often used erroneously. There are very few things which can actually universally inspire such extreme emotions. Nonetheless, I have heard people say that about the star of “My Effortless Brilliance”, musician, author and former Stranger film critic, Sean Nelson. It’s true that he does inspire intense loathing from people, mostly in his film critic incarnation (it’s a tough business to have opinions), and intense love from people, also from his writing and his having fronted a popular 90’s rock band. But I, for one, find his work…enjoyable. That is a pretty moderate emotion as far as good feelings are concerned. It’s tough to admit that I appreciate the work of Sean Nelson. It’s so cool, you see, to LOATHE. That said, if you ARE taking up residence in Bunk 5 of Camp Naysayer, you will not, in the slightest, enjoy “My Effortless Brilliance”. If you summer anywhere else, you will probably have a pretty great time watching it.

With all the films made in the Northwest, and even many films made in Canada but “set” in Seattle, it baffles me that there are so few true “love letters” to the state. It’s truly a marvelous place to live. So much culture in the city of Seattle and so much beauty inside and out of it. Washington state is utterly breathtaking and full of interesting stories. So why aren’t there more filmmakers depicting that? Why do we only get fluffy romantic comedies? Or heavy-handed political dramas? Or shocking true stories? Where is the every day slice of life? I’ll tell you where. It’s in “My Effortless Brilliance”.

Using a sparse cast and crew and mostly improvised dialog, director Lynn Shelton (“We Go Way Back”) adeptly utilizes the Cinéma Vérité style to tell the story of a lonely, narcissist author named Eric (Nelson) and his attempt to repair a broken bond with an old friend, Dylan (Basil Harris). Eric’s efforts bring this soft city boy to Eastern Washington where Dylan has taken up a sparse existence running a small paper and living in a cabin in the woods. Eric surprises Dylan with a visit “on his way” back from a reading and, thanks to beer, ends up staying a couple of days.

myeffortlessbrilliance

There is much natural humor in this uneasy fish-out-of-water story. When Dylan’s neighbor, Jim (Calvin Reader), rides up on horseback with a shotgun in his lap, talking earnestly of loose cougars, Eric realizes just how far from the city he is. He is unable to assist in the chopping of wood. He cannot even make the coffee. He can only crack-wise about the books in Dylan’s cabin (“Spiders…and Their Kin”) and watch helplessly from the porch. He is a man who is used to getting by on his charm alone. But his charm has long worn off on Dylan, and Jim is clearly a man who is rarely amused. It is up to alcohol (indubitably) and a preposterous situation to remind Eric and Dylan of the rapport they once shared.

Ironically, it is a tricky thing to make improvisation seem natural. But the cast pull it off remarkably, never over-expositing or over-emoting. Along with the shaky-cam and occasional out-of-focus shots, we are (sometimes literally) peeking through the window into a realistic complex human relationship. This fabricated tale feels more genuine than any reality TV show.

By the way, Sean Nelson would like you to know that his uses of the word “literally”, both correct and incorrect, were entirely intentional.

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