Paulie Go (Ethan Dizon, Spider-Man: Homecoming) has dedicated his entire life thus far to artificial intelligence—interacting with robots comes to him more naturally than dealing with people, it seems. As he wraps up high school a year early, he’s pinned all his hopes on spending his college years studying under Chuck Shikenjanski (Bernard White, Silicon Valley), an infamous professor in the field of AI who lives off the grid. When Paulie receives a rejection letter, he’s sure there’s been some mistake, so he swipes his uncle’s van and hits the road, heading from Los Angeles to rural Nevis, Minnesota, where the reclusive professor is rumored to live to convince Prof. Shikenjanski of his merits in person. His antics catch the eye of law enforcement, and when the tow yard accidentally busts up his van, Sheriff Anderson (David Theune, Good Girls, The Big Bang Theory) takes pity on the oddball boy and brings him home for the night, where he meets the sheriff’s teenaged daughter, Avery (Madison Wolfe, lead in I Kill Giants). Paulie has deduced that Shikenjanski lives on a lake (this being Minnesota, that doesn’t really narrow it down), and the tomboyish Avery is an avid angler (she makes YouTube videos of her fishing exploits—in a bikini, in the ones her dad doesn’t know about), so the two strike a deal and head off in search of the elusive professor.
Paulie Go! flies through its setup with lightning speed and the beginning scenes can feel almost sitcom-y in the way Paulie is portrayed as a stereotypical science nerd—stooped shoulders, arms stiffly at his sides, robotic voice repeating the word “Shikenjanski” ad infinitum. But the stiffly comedic tone loosens up with the introduction of Avery. Madison Wolfe plays Avery with a rough-and-tumble, rural-girl-next-door charm that chips away at Paulie’s coolly mechanical exterior.
If Paulie Go! were just an Odd Couple comedy about an antisocial geek and a brash fisherwoman, as it is for the first chunk of the film, it would be more than charming. But though Avery may be more personable than Paulie, she keeps the world at just as much of a distance in her own way. The two kids bond over the giant, parent-sized hole they each have in their hearts, giving what started out as a fairly wacky comedy a surprisingly affecting emotional core. In the film’s back half, director/co-writer Andrew Nackman maintains a delicate balance, deepening that emotional connection while also ramping up the eccentric silliness once the mysterious Shikenjanski appears.
In tone, Paulie Go! reminded me of films like Colin Treverrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed or Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store: a comedy that doesn’t go for broad belly laughs but whose strong characters, emotional core, and whimsical twists will leave you smiling and chuckling throughout. That tone is amplified by the cinematography of Hana Kitasei, whose shots of Minnesota’s tranquil lakes make visual the soothing effect that Avery has on the always agitated Paulie. Coming of age movies are a dime a dozen, but this one, particularly in Wolfe’s performance, really impresses. | Jason Green
Paulie Go! is available to rent or own on digital platforms beginning May 24.