Benjamin (Timothy V. Murphy) is a once-famous and successful playwright now stuck in a rut; he hopes a move from L.A. to New York will reinvigorate his creativity. He’s bringing along his decades-younger wife, Katherine (Elisha Renee Sutton), a former actress who now makes her living behind the camera as a celebrity photographer, and her elementary school-aged son Micah (T.K. Weaver). Before they move, they decide to say goodbye to their L.A. friends with an intimate New Year’s Eve party. Big life changes are afoot for most of the party guests: Julian (Kyle Mac), a documentary filmmaker, is also moving, though in his case it’s back to his hometown to care for his dying father—and to outrun his failure to complete any of his movie projects. Cameron (Neil Jackson), Katherine’s ex and Micah’s father, brings along an unexpected date, a young starry-eyed actress wannabe named Meegan (Raven Scott), and talks of having another child even as his first child is preparing to move across the country. And Joseph (Nelson Lee) is an actor with his star on the rise with a blockbuster movie on the way and a starring turn on Broadway in the offing thanks to his powerhouse agent and the party’s resident hot mess, Willa (Gillian Shure). As the alcohol (not to mention other intoxicants) starts to flow, old wounds are opened and sparks start to fly. And that’s when, as the clock nears midnight, Benjamin’s former life as an acting professor comes to the fore and he asks his party guests to play a little game, an exercise in truth-telling called “I Love You, I Hate You”…
There is one thing that really bugged me about this movie: Benjamin and Katherine are supposed to be moving the very next day, yet literally nothing in their house is packed. I mention this because, well, it’s pretty much the only thing that bugged me about the movie. The rest is fantastic.
What an intense, personal, dramatic film this is. There’s no high concept, really, it’s just people talking, but in the hands of director Nathan Sutton (a former St. Louisan, and graduate of Webster University), New Year offers more than enough fireworks to go around. The dialogue (written by the two Suttons I mentioned above, a husband-and-wife team) strikes a perfect balance, carefully constructed to introduce plot elements and establish its cast with efficiency yet with the ring of honesty that makes those characters feel like real people, whether it’s a husband and wife in a private, intimate conversation, or longtime friends giving each other grief, or a woman sizing up and cutting down her ex’s new love.
The film is basically a “bottle episode” in movie form: the characters are limited to just the eight mentioned above and the set is limited to Benjamin and Katherine’s house and yard. Combine that with Sutton’s consistent use of long takes with few cuts or other cinematic effects and the film feels like it could well be one of Benjamin’s plays. In that way, it makes for a dream gig for all of the actors, most of whom have lengthy IMDB profiles packed with credits for one-off TV roles, but here each gets a role with a full character arc, meaty dialogue, and intense emotional moments. It’s truly an actors’ showcase and all of them shine at the opportunity, though none more so than Murphy, his steely-eyed focus and quick, broad, genuine-but-just-a-little-bit-off-putting grin bringing to mind Ed Harris with a light Irish brogue. This is the kind of movie that makes you sit up and take note of everyone involved, because the actors and writers and director all do so well here that you want to see what they’ll do next. | Jason Green
New Year will screen at the Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Blvd.) on Saturday, November 20th at 9:15pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival with an appearance by director Nathan Sutton. The film is not available for virtual screening. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF 2021 website.