If Hollywood isn’t offering you the roles you want, the advice to screen actors always goes, “Write something for yourself.”
So it was with Annika Marks, a familiar face (“The World Without You,” TV’s “Goliath,” “Waco” and “The Last Tycoon”) if not a marquee name. But with “Killing Eleanor,” she’s written not just a plum role for herself — an ex-dancer/junkie trapped in the lies she’s built her life around — but a lovely curtain call part for veteran character actress Jenny O’Hara (“Mystic River,” and TV’s “The Mindy Project” and “Transparent”).
“Eleanor” is an indie dramedy with weight, biting wit and heart, a movie that generously offers meaty roles for Jane Kaczmarek and Camryn Manheim, who help this “road comedy/caper comedy” turn, on a dime, into a film of substance and one that’s kind of heartbreaking.
The end, when it comes, is rarely pretty. Eleanor’s old enough to know that. Living in a nursing home, medicated, her life prolonged in ways that make no sense to her, all she wants is control over her end.
That’s why she (O’Hara) seeks out Natalie (Marks) in Natalie’s mother’s (Kaczmarek) nail salon. Fresh from an AA meeting but still using Adderall, back to living with her parents in her 30s, lying about everything and to everyone she meets, Natalie’s at the narcissistic end of the “rehab” spectrum, wrapped up in her own mess.
And then this stranger with a nursing home ID bracelet stalks in and barks, “It’s time. You OWE me.”
An ancient IOU has come due. Yes, she knew Eleanor years ago. Her plea, spat out with a splattering of profanity, is presented as a demand.
“I want you to help me die.”
And Natalie, distracted by her family’s “intervention,” her harridan sister’s (Betsy Brandt) political campaign demands and her drug cravings, says “OK” for reasons that make no sense until you consider the bad decisions, impulse control and lies meant to cover lies way she gets through her day.
“Killing Eleanor” invites us to consider, through messed-up Natalie, whether we’d grant such a wish, and where’d we begin if we expect to go through with this. Not that we’re sure lying Natalie will.
Marks briskly sketches in Natalie’s “issues” and her family’s range of reactions to them. Mom is mistrusting behind an upbeat and supportive face, Dad (Chris Mulkey), is a doctor too distracted to dig in, and sister Anya (Brandt)? She is WAY past over Natalie’s nonsense.
We’re treated to the blizzard of lies it takes for Natalie just to get in to see Eleanor once the nursing home has taken her “home.” We see the DIY way Eleanor effects her escape and the impromptu road trip they take through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, ostensibly to “buy drugs” in Canada, where “assisted suicide” is supposedly easier to pull off.
The dialogue is peppered with flippant cracks about death and old age, from Mom’s “if I ever get like that, shoot me” to nervous nail-biter Natalie’s many jokes about what Eleanor wants and ways Eleanor might accomplish it.
Eleanor hisses “Those things’ll kill you” about Natalie’s smoking.
They run out of gas, so let’s flag down a trucker. Get into a semi “with a complete stranger?”
“Maybe he’s a psycho killer and he’ll solve our problem for us.”
Better let the service station attendant fill the gas can rather than risk Natalie “soaking us all with gasoline.” Pause. “Although…”
But a stranger (Manheim) who picks them up understands their quest and puts it in perspective. Natalie’s personal journey to redemption steps to the fore and “Killing Eleanor” finds its heart.
Marks’ performance begins with a series of tics — nervous, smoking, nail-biting, ransacking the family’s vacation condo for drugs (as antic drum solos accentuate her mania) — and evolves into a sort of stages-of-death-and-dying “acceptance.” Nice and subtle.
And O’Hara’s Eleanor travels from grousing, bitter old woman to vamping, over-the-top Christian “sponsor” to cover up another of Natalie’s lies, and beyond — a compact, lived-in turn that never feels false.
Yes, the screenplay gives away twists and points to an obvious finale early. But Marks, O’Hara & Co. never let us forget that whether of not you wind up “Killing Eleanor,” it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters most.
Rating: unrated, drug abuse, profanity
Cast: Annika Marks, Jenny O’Hara, Jane Kaczmarek, Chris Mukley, Betsy Brandt and Camryn Manheim
Credits: Directed by Rich Newey, scripted by Annika Marks. A 1091 release.
Running time: 1:46