AFI Fest 2018: The Weekend, by David Bax
Stella Meghie’s The Weekend stumbles clumsily out of the gate. To some extent, this might be a matter of personal taste as I can count on one hand the number of times a character doing stand-up comedy in a movie hasn’t made me want to crawl out of my own skin. But it’s not just the usual stilted unfunniness; it’s also a terribly clunky way to deliver exposition about our protagonist, Zadie (Sasheer Zamata), and the fact that she remains friends with her ex, Bradford (Tone Bell), despite the fact that she’s still not over him. It’s not any less awkward when the title card bizarrely refers to the film as “A Stella Meghie Picture,” but, admittedly, that has its old-fashioned charms. So, The Weekend gets off to a decidedly rough start that eventually becomes just another part of the movie’s shaggy dog lovability by which I was, at least partially, won over.
Zadie’s parents own a bed and breakfast outside of Los Angeles, in Agua Dulce. Zadie, Bradford and Bradford’s new girlfriend, Margot (DeWanda Wise), have decided to spend the weekend there with Zadie’s mother, Karen (Kym Whitley), while Zadie’s father is away. Also renting a room, coincidentally, is Aubrey (Y’lan Noel), a serendipitously recently single man stopping for a few days of relaxation before moving to Los Angeles.
Meghie has unfortunately brought with her from her last film, the snoozy Everything, Everything, a frustrating inability to pace out individual scenes. The overall structure of the film is coherently built but moments often fail to jell, as if we’re watching the first rehearsal of each take. It doesn’t help that Meghie’s shot choices range from uninspired—she’s usually content to just point the camera in the general direction of the action—to inexplicable (Is that a two-shot or an over-the-shoulder or, wait, is that just a nose poking into the frame?).
Still, I did mention the movie won me over, didn’t I? Chalk that up almost entirely to the terrific character work of all five main actors. Noel’s Aubrey is the nonplussed outsider who’s decent but guarded. Bell’s Bradford is charming but the insecurity behind most such people comes gradually to the surface. And Wise brings too much humanity and vulnerability to Margot to let her be the villain the set-up would seem to demand. But the heart of the ensemble is the chemistry between Zamata and Whitley, who perfectly capture the woundingly familiar vibes of a mother and daughter. Also, with her refusal to take anything seriously as an emotional defense mechanism, Zadie is more believable as a stand-up comic off the stage than on it.
The Weekend can’t quite overcome the contrivances of its high-concept plot. It’s hard to imagine that even someone with self-esteem as low as Zadie’s would volunteer to spend a weekend with her mom, her ex and his new girlfriend. And Aubrey’s presence is one convenience too many. But it is, finally, refreshing when we begin to realize that the elements we think we recognize are actually forming a personal story of self-worth in the guise of a clichéd love triangle romantic comedy.