Pretty Problems (SXSW Review): Champagne & Emptiness
Pretty Problems is a tequila-induced fever dream. Somehow saying so much whilst doing very little, this film is an entertaining look at the inner turmoil of the millennial mind.
Cleverly crafted with expert writing and stellar performances, Pretty Problems is as vibrant as it is hollow. Brilliantly exposing the fragility and falsities of the modern capitalist mindset, Pretty Problems transports audiences into a living, breathing Pinterest board where a colour-coordinated daydream slips subtly into a nightmare.
Whether or not we want to admit it, this is a film in which we can all see ourselves: prepare to feel uncomfortably seen and re-examine everything. I’ll hold up my hands and say in the early scenes where we first meet the charismatic, hurricane that is Cat (JJ Nolan) I wanted to be her. The way she walks into Lindsey‘s (Britt Rentschler) boutique and completely commands the room, taking Lindsey’s irritating colleague Georgia down a few notches with a swipe of her credit card and a pointed suggestion of meditation, had me mesmerised. After a few glasses of room-temperature rosé, Lindsey and Cat seem to become fast friends. In a scene that brings back memories of nightclub toilets and too many tequilas, the pair bare their souls to each other, and, somewhere amongst it all, Cat invites Lindsey and her husband Jack (Michael Tennant) to spend the weekend with her and husband in their vineyard home in Sonoma.
The rest of the story unfolds over a single weekend, in which Lindsey and Jack do little else but drink and become enamoured by the wealth and decadent lifestyle of Kat and her husband, Matt (Graham Outerbridge). In a whirlwind of indulgence, Lyndsey and Jack appear to be completely taken in by the dream of extreme wealth, but, as the party continues, cracks begin to appear in the crystal. Through clever writing and pointed symbolism, the film expertly highlights how baseless and unfulfilling Cat and Matt’s monied existence really is, as Jack states ‘this isn’t real’.
A key example of how Pretty Problems shows the cracks in the crystal in the capitalist dream is the frequent mentioning of the elusive ‘Milton’. Milton is a character we never meet, but whenever a personalised gift bag appears out of nowhere or a problem is miraculously resolved, Milton is responsible. Milton is the film’s modern answer to a genie in a bottle: magical, desirable, and ultimately, not real. He symbolises how this dream of a monied existence is an intangible idea, the picture-perfect lifestyle has as much substance as Milton himself.
At several points throughout the film, Lindsey, Jack, Cat, Mat and their friends Carrie (Charlotte Ubben) and Kerry (Alex Klein) assume various characters. Despite having known Cat for literally ten days, Lindsey has become known as ‘Lindz,’ a nickname she always hated. Here, Lindsey assumes a character, a version of herself that has no ties to who she really is. Jack’s personalised bathrobe is embroidered with ‘Jump’in Jack Flash,’ a pop culture character that is as real as the airbrushed world of the Vineyard retreat. Later in the weekend, the group have a murder mystery themed party complete with costumes and characters. At the end of the night, Lindsey wins the award for ‘best performance’, another nod to how the lavish lifestyle Lyndsey finds herself aspiring to is little more than fairy-tale.
Pretty Problems confronts feelings we have all had. Feelings of not knowing who we are, what we want, or where we are going, and the script itself reflects this, with single sentences seemingly summing up the confusing, directionless-ness of the millennial crisis. In possibly some of the most millennial scenes ever shot, we meet Gigi (Vanessa Chester), Cat’s Shaman who, after making herself a Nespresso, leads the group in a ‘healing cacao ceremony’. Here, the group (dressed in matching, pristine white linen) attempt to heal themselves of something by drinking cacao and saying a lot of sentences with the word ‘intention’ in them. There’s an undercurrent of sadness here, it becomes abundantly clear that all the money in the world cannot help you make peace with yourself.
This directionless attempt to find happiness and fulfilment is again highlighted in expert writing as Linsey and Jack realise they have spent the entire weekend in a mushroom-induced haze. In what I think is the best line of the entire film, Lyndsey reassures Jack by saying ‘Gigi has a guy, and there’s something about Elon, and it’s okay because she has a podcast’. Jack bluntly replies with ‘what the f*ck are you talking about’. This single line, for me, sums up the film’s entire message. Ultimately, we are all just looking for reassurance, connection, and fulfilment and the world we are taught to aspire to, a world of money and mindset podcasts, will not help us get there.
In the final scenes of the film, the dream comes crashing down. Cat, so drunk she can barely stand, admits she is an alcoholic and ‘most of [her] is missing’. She tells Lindsey that ‘money doesn’t fix your problems…it just makes them prettier’. In a stellar example of what was an expertly crafted score, Elliott smith’s ‘Twilight’ plays as we see a montage full of symbolism and sadness. Smith’s pertinent lyrics play in the background as we see scenes of disconnection. Cat dances alone and empty rocking chairs sway on the deck to the words ‘those drugs won’t make you feel better, pretty soon you’ll find it’s the only part of your life you’re keeping together’.
After her conversation with Cat, Lyndsey realises that this life of decadence, a life she thought she wanted, wouldn’t fix the issues in her marriage, and the drug of extravagance wouldn’t make her feel better. Finally, Lindsey and Jack are able to express their vulnerabilities in a healing moment of real human connection. Now able to confront their fears about their future, they attempt to navigate them, something that is tenderly illustrated in the final moments of the film. Lyndsey and Jack leave the vineyard and realise they have no service and no directions, Lyndsey takes Jack’s hand and says, ‘we’ll figure it out’. In showcasing the cracks in the millennial, capitalist dream, Pretty Problems helps us recognise the beauty in the ordinary. It tells us, with honesty and humour that, no you probably won’t ever ‘have it all’. If you’re lucky you’ll have a rough diamond. You’ll have worries and arguments, laugh lines and good friends and, if you’re really lucky, a hand to hold along the way.
Pretty Problems premiered at SXSW 2022 on March 14, 2022, and will be released in theaters and on digital platforms in the US on October 7, 2022.