It’s such a delight when a movie turns out to be everything you’re looking forward to. From the first time I saw the trailer for Nobody Walks, I was excited for this dark, sexy tale of young artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby), who comes to stay with a family in Los Angeles but winds up seducing Peter (John Krasinski), the husband of her family friend Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt). For the rest of Ry Russo-Young‘s film, we witness the family’s slow fracture from this and other betrayals. But the movie also surprised me, because instead of painting Martine — undeniably a Manic Pixie Dream Girl — as a homewrecker, she’s actually incredibly sympathetic.
With Lena Dunham co-writing the script, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Nobody Walks attacks the MPDG archetype thoughtfully. That’s not to say that Martine isn’t flawed! But similar to Girls‘ protagonist Hannah Horvath, those flaws are presented unapologetically, and the appeal for moviegoers is to see how Martine navigates social situations after she’s screwed everything up. Look, she’s 23 years old, just graduated college and living in New York City. She’s self-involved to the point that she’s oblivious to other people’s feelings. Yet (and unlike Hannah) she also exudes an undeniable charisma that comes from a mix of confidence and talent.
As you might’ve guessed, I was extremely impressed with Olivia Thirlby. While I agree with the New York Post that the character of Martine is drawn in somewhat broad strokes, she still brings enough nuanced moments to the performance that I’ll forgive the shorthand of her wearing all black. And I definitely don’t agree with this assessment: “Thirlby, who comes across as the kind of too-earnest undergraduate who would be mildly confused if someone told a joke, has nowhere near the magnetism to make us believe she would disrupt this family’s life.” Because it’s not just Martine who messes up this family; they all have a hand in it. And that’s how Nobody Walks starts to subvert the MPDG trope.
Martine is talented but misunderstood. Peter sees it—that’s why he, a sound producer for big-budget movies, is glad to help foster her burgeoning career. But she’s still green: In one illuminating scene, she doesn’t know how to properly express her constructive criticism to a voice actor, frustrating him and embarrassing her. Throughout the film, Martine is prone to these overreactions, including a bizarre and unexplained one at the dinner table when Julie’s first husband pushes her too far with questioning her art. For Peter to understand and defend her in these situations builds a bond between them, artist-to-artist.
But, as Peter admits in the clip below, he gets so caught up in that mutual admiration and genuine delight over creating sound effects for her film, that he starts to confuse it with physical attraction. Martine also cultivates that attraction through flirting and by giving off a sense that traditional boundaries and social mores simply don’t apply to her. After all, when we first meet her she’s just joined the Mile High Club with a guy on her plane, but all she wants from him afterward is a ride to Peter and Julie’s house. She’s unapologetic about her needs, whether it’s going over the same shot countless times in the recording studio to sleeping with a hot older guy because she wants to.
Can we talk about the recording studio? Because that’s where things come to a head… and it is hot.
The New York Times‘ review claims that “what makes [Martine] all the scarier is her refusal to acknowledge her complicity, even to herself, in treacherous sexual power games she initiates mostly out of boredom.” I read this less as some malicious refusal and more as honest obliviousness. She’s aware of right and wrong, but she’s also too self-involved to follow the steps to the consequences of her actions.
Thankfully, we never get to the point where Peter builds up Martine as some impossible ideal. That’s where a lot of MPDG movies stumble, because audiences get so frustrated with these stupid men who don’t have big enough cojones to enact change in their own lives and expect some wild-eyed, shaggy-banged girl to do it for them.
Anyway, it’s not like Peter’s life is lacking in anything: He respects and loves his wife, adores his stepchildren, and has a fabulous career. Nobody Walks could’ve spent more time defining Peter’s arc, because the point where he devolves into a jealous lover (as The A.V. Club pointed out) could have been handled better. You get the sense that Peter is attracted to Martine’s youth, especially since his wife is older than him, but that’s never explored.
One of my problems with the similar older-guy-younger-girl forbidden romance in The Oranges was that nothing seemed to change. Though Nobody Walks has a similar conclusion, the consequences are clear. And we get a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story where the flawed heroine is forced to confront the emotional wreckage of her unapologetic actions.
Also? I’m officially a Rosemarie DeWitt convert.
Photo: Nicholas Trikonis/Magnolia Pictures