One of the films that stood out for me at the 72nd Berlinale was New Zealand’s comedy-drama Millie Lies Low by the first-time director Michelle Savill, presented in the Generation 14plus section. The movie may at first feel like a fun flick for teenagers and it really has a certain narrative lightness, but it also explores deeper ideas.
The film’s main protagonist is Millie, a fresh architecture graduate who is getting ready to fly from New Zealand’s capital Wellington to New York to accept a prestigious internship position. Preparations are underway, billboards across the city promoting architecture studios are plastered with her face and everything seems to be going just fine. Yet shortly before departure, Millie has a panic attack on the plane and, at the last minute, cannot leave New Zealand. No one must find out about her failure! Millie starts quickly raising some money for some very expensive plane tickets and persuades all of her friends and social media followers that she has successfully made it to New York to start a new life there. The race is on to stay ahead of the truth and to salvage as much as she can.
Voice of the young generation
The situation described above makes it quite clear that Millie is ambiguous and flawed. In order to maintain her (online) image, she finds herself in questionable situations, which the viewer might find hard to comprehend. This creates some distance that allows the viewer to see her actions as entertaining and watch them from a slightly detached perspective.
We might feel some disdain for her obsession with social media and self-presentation, especially when Millie smiles after receiving positive reactions to her fake photos from New York. It isn’t entirely clear if she is more pleased with the initial success of her scam or with popularity among followers. As if whatever happens online is more important than reality, which highlights a major issue of our time.
Viewers have little information about the background of Millie’s New York mission. Motivations are not really discussed, and we don’t know what drives Millie to hide the fact that she stayed behind in New Zealand from people around her, including her boyfriend, her mother and best friend. It is precisely because of these vague motivations – as opposed to other specific actions that increase distance – that Millie becomes a symbolic voice of the young generation, forced by society to focus on performance, while privately struggling with her insecurities and mental issues. She is an ideal character for identification, as supported by the cinematic language discussed below.
Millie Lies Low allows us not to feel sympathy (we probably wouldn’t get involved in such a poorly justified cover-up) and simultaneously feel sympathy with the protagonist (we can see that Millie struggles with her flaws). This tension then holds the movie together, generates laughter in comedic scenes, and evokes sympathy and other emotions in scenes that are more serious.
For this purpose, the movie’s realistic approach is also crucial. It means that humor is not set up using crazy comedic exaggeration or stylization of the fiction world. Everything is derived from the situations as they are, or from the juxtaposition of contrast, especially between the (un)fulfilled expectations regarding Millie’s “stardom” – or the anticipated absence in her native country – and her actual difficult circumstances. Besides natural acting style, realistic approach also relies on documentary techniques – perhaps due to a lower budget – and at times even follows the style of sober social drama.
The viewer’s identification with the protagonist is developed from the very beginning of the movie, with a natural lightness using style. The opening minute-long shot serves as a good example of the entire method. It captures Millie having a panic attack on the plane. The plane is ready to take off, but Millie realizes that she must leave no matter what. She climbs over the person sitting next to her, sprints down the aisle right to the emergency exit, tries to open the door and then she is restrained by the flight attendants. The hand-held camera starts dynamically with a semi close-up of Millie’s anxious face, then gets up with her, heads for the exit and shows us a close-up of the altercation with the crew.
The opening seconds capture quite an intense scene that unfolds while the other calmly seated passengers are also captured in the background, which helps create some contrast to the main story and sets up the tension between comedy and drama that is then maintained throughout the movie. The absence of editing, unstylized sound and close-ups of Millie’s face allow us to feel like we share in her experience. The viewer’s immersion in the story is generally boosted through limited perspective, i.e., the viewer is present only in scenes featuring Millie so that we do not possess any superior knowledge.
Juxtaposition of context that generates humor is used throughout the movie. Sometimes, it is achieved even in a single shot. For instance, right after Millie is taken off the plane, we watch her as she wonders anxiously at the departure gate what to do next, and then we see her with her hood on, sitting gloomily under a billboard promoting her smiling face. This gives us valuable information about her “schizophrenic” world that is split into two levels – higher-media and lower-reality. A similar contrast is then used when there is a cut from a close-up shot of Millie’s face – after a cheerily fake chat with a friend, in which she says that her New York trip is going just fine – to a grounding wide shot of Millie, frowning and snacking by some garbage cans in Wellington.
The viewer is getting used to this narrative approach from the opening scene. The meaning of the contrast between the story and reality is shown using the protagonist’s social media presence that always resembles a war on two fronts. This recurring motif serves as another device that generates humor.
As the entire cover-up unfolds and becomes increasingly messy, there are darker tones emerging from below. Millie must deal with a difficult relationship with her mother, the unprocessed loss of her father and later finds out that her boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend. These moments and Millie’s reactions make the protagonist more complex and, as opposed to the vague and universal lack of definition at the beginning, she gradually becomes a fully fleshed-out character who is able to accept responsibility and realize the value of one’s authenticity. Yet the director still keeps things a bit light and, like in real life, moments of depression are followed by moments of laughter and promising moments of improvement that all work together to preserve the movie’s narrative subtlety.
Less is more
Moreover, the story also fits perfectly with the natural quality of the style that amplifies the authenticity of representation. The mise-en-scène does not in any way draw attention to itself; both the environment and acting performances feel natural and do not point to “the crew behind the camera”. The story is set in regular reality that is no different from the real world. Not even other components of the film language distract the viewer too much. Static shots alternate with hand-held camera for a more documentary approach, following the main story that is still at the center of focus. The most used shot is the semi close-up that captures facial expressions of the protagonists and keeps them close for most of the time.
Millie does not arrive at a happy ending in the conventional sense of the word. Her scam didn’t work, and she is not going to New York. However, perhaps for the first time in her life, she is able to admit what she feels and arrives at some valuable insights regarding authenticity, self-discovery and freedom of life without pretense. As Millie gets closer to this state of mind, we also see fewer contrasts and their humorous juxtaposition. Millie stops fighting to save her own image, which means there is no longer nothing to clash with.
Just as the movie opened with a long “identifying” shot, it ends in a similar way. The camera focuses in Millie’s face as she leaves the Wellington airport through a long dark underpass and, with a smile slowly emerging on her face, steps into the light, finally feeling at ease with herself. While she did not become a New York star, her life is far from over. In a way, she is now happier than ever before.
Considering all the above, Michelle Savill’s debut is a prototype of quality mainstream cinema. It deftly combines hilarious and serious tone, it is broadly accessible and easy to understand, yet it is not merely entertaining because it has some overreaching meaning and an important message about our world. The movie’s value also lies in its modesty; the budget was not very large and there are no famous actors in the cast. Yet, thanks to a strong premise and the way it was thoroughly exploited, this is a solid movie that could also be made in the Czech Republic.