Weiting Liu


I Used to Be Funny – first-look review

A young woman struggles to come to terms with her PTSD while the child she used to nanny goes missing in Ally Pankiw's directorial debut.

With the premiers of Bottoms and I Used to Be Funny at this year’s SXSW, Rachel Sennott has taken the festival by storm with her comedic ingenuity and dramatic versatility. Both films leverage Sennot’s signature sass and main-character energy, while in I Used to Be Funny writer/director Ally Pankiw dares to experiment with the hotshot actor’s potential of anchoring a tragicomedy.

Nailing the complex character study of a trauma survivor powering through her messy recovery, Sennott rises to the challenge in Pankiw’s debut feature tackling thorny subjects around sexual assault and PTSD. Apart from the sexual charisma she boasts in her previous works such as Shiva Baby and Bodies Bodies Bodies, Sennott dives deep into I Used to Be Funny’s whirlwinds of fragility and psychosis.

From the outset, the film wraps a haze of depressive episodes and sensorial triggers around Sam (Sennott), a stand-up comedian trapped in a Toronto rental house she shares with her best friends and fellow comedians Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon). Though it is not yet clear what exactly happened to Sam, Pankiw already captures the quintessential experience of combating PTSD: taking a quick shower is a chore; ambient noise feels like jump scares; and friends’ attempts at consolation induce nothing but guilt.

Sennott is perfectly cast, portraying Sam as simultaneously lifeless and hilarious with her default blasé attitude and dry-wit humor. Together with Jalees and Hearon, who are also real-life comedians, they instantly make a dynamic trio stumbling through Sam’s woozy anxieties.

Adding fuel to the fire, 14-year-old Brooke (Olga Petsa), who Sam used to nanny, comes to their doorstep drunk and destructive, accusing her of lying – and soon after goes missing. As Brooke and Sam apparently share an unspeakable past, the trio tiptoes around this sensitive situation while still finding humor in their daily routines.

From here, Pankiw switches back and forth between Sam’s current struggles with her PTSD and her barbed memories from two years ago – nannying Brooke while getting attached to her broken family. Meanwhile, Sam’s omnipresent yet indescribable trauma gradually comes to the fore, as the film’s editing exponentially accelerates its pace to reveal its multitude of suspenses. Echoing Pankiw’s non-linear narrative, nightmarish voiceovers from the incident loop within Sam’s trauma capsules while hateful comments keep rolling out of her phone.

Pankiw takes up an admirable quest to acknowledge the heartbreaking oxymorons of overcoming sexual traumas as modern women. What if trauma appears out of place on those who are always supposed to be strong and funny? What if our abusers are people who we care about and empathize with? What if the internet keeps reminding us of “our fault” when all we want to do is move on and forget?

Amidst the chaos of Sam’s downward spiral into self-isolation and self-blame, I Used to be Funny still manages to shine the light on her only way out of this misery: her unbreakable bond with Brooke and her headstrong refusal to let one more woman get hurt like she did. “Traumatized and funny as hell” is the happy-ending tagline that reintroduces Sam onto her stand-up stage, but this statement also serves as a pained yet triumphant summary of the difficult experience of wrestling sovereignty away from abusers back to oneself.

Published 17 Mar 2023

Tags: Ally Pankiw Rachel Sennott SXSW

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