By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Erma Bombeck once said, “There’s a fine line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Situated at this fine line is I Used To Be Funny, a dark dramedy from director/writer Ally Pankiw that premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival.
I Used To Be Funny follows a stand-up comedian named Sam, played by Bodies Bodies Bodies’ Rachel Sennott, who is haunted by a past trauma and finds it difficult to function as she used to. When a teenage girl she used to nanny named Brooke (played by Olga Petsa) goes missing, the trauma becomes increasingly unbearable.
Reading that description of I Used To Be Funny and one could easily make the mistake that the film is as bleak and depressing as its subject matter. It’s not. Not at all. One of the film’s (many) strengths is its execution of a tone that can elicit tears in moment and laughter a moment later. Writer/director Ally Pankiw deftly navigates the dense and tricky subject matter, never making the film too dark as to render it suffocated nor too light as to minimize the severity of the issues at play.
Part of this tonal balance is attributed to the intelligent decision to fluctuate between present day and past. The present day Sam is one who has stopped doing stand-up comedy shows, broken up with her boyfriend, and whose depression is so affecting that showering is uncommon. The past, on the other hand, follows a Sam in a much better place in her life. Her comedy career is thriving, she’s developing a relationship with the teenage girl she’s hired to nanny, and she has a sweet relationship with her boyfriend. The tone is decidedly different between the present and past set scenes, highlighting the extent to which Sam’s trauma reshaped her entire life and, in turn, making the film’s approach to mental health all the more impactful.
Front and center of the entire film is Rachel Sennott, who magnificently brings so much warmth, empathy, and vulnerability to the role of Sam. An accomplished comedian herself, Sennott has also shined in indie movies such as Shiva Baby and Bodies Bodies Bodies, and continues her impressive streak in I Used To Be Funny. Between this and another SXSW release in Bottoms, Sennott is seamlessly cementing herself as one of the most compelling actors working today.
Core to Sennott’s performance is her relationship with Brooke, the teenage girl Sam babysits played by Olga Petsa. Brooke is introduced as a troubled young girl, distressed by her mother’s precarious help and father’s intermittent presence. There’s a mystery surrounding Brooke’s character as she has gone missing in the present day and her once warm relationship with Sam is now fractured, for reasons not explicitly revealed until later in the film. Petsa delivers a heartbreaking, genuine performance, one that is so necessary for the film’s messages about mental health issue to hit so effectively.
Supporting Sennott and Petsa are Caleb Hearon and Sabrina Jalees, who play Sam’s roommates and friends supporting her during her difficult trauma recovery. Both Hearon and Jalees are hilarious, adding important levity to key moments in the film while also bringing an endearing warmth to their performance. Across performances, the cast bring such a rawness and realism to the film that makes viewing a deeply relatable experience.
I Used To Be Funny, a dark dramedy from writer/director Ally Pankiw premiering at South by Southwest Film Festival, excels as a film as endearing and heartbreaking as it is hilarious and relatable. Rachel Sennott delivers a passionate and empathic performance as the film’s lead, while the decision to switch between present and past day scenes contributes to a well balanced tone that never becomes too bleak or too lighthearted. Not half an hour into I Used To Be Funny and it’s abundantly clear – Sennott is one of the most captivating young actors working today and Pankiw is a writer/director to look out for.