The writing and directing debut of actress Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) updates the 1990s Scottish party girl trope with a dose of millennial sadness.
Liusaidh (Gillan)—pronounced “Lucy”—is a sullen 24-year-old with a dead-end job selling cheese behind a supermarket counter, with parents who are too busy keeping up with the Jones’s to notice her despair. To get through her days, Liusaidh spends her nights drinking liquor, picking random men to have rough sex with, and walking home stuffing chips down her throat. As she points out, living with a hangover numbs reality.
On paper, there are hints of Trainspotting (1996), but it becomes a meandering tale of loneliness and memories. It’s not her work, her family, or even her sleepy Scottish upbringing that’s eating away at her. Instead, we witness through flashbacks the suicide of her friend Alistair (Matthew Beard), a young gay boy struggling with his sexuality and gender, with a religious closeted boyfriend and a drug addict father. None of these points is touched on in-depth, Alistair’s pain is solely played out as background noise to Liusaidh’s own troubles. Beard’s performance is a standout despite not being given much to work, as he brings a radiant warmth to a thinly-written character.
The flashbacks to Alistair’s final days are the heart of The Party’s Just Beginning. It feels hollow to not get to delve into Alistair’s life more. So many points brought up in his story feel like relevant and timely stories that should be told, but they’re used as a catalyst for Liusaidh’s own pain. It can’t help but feel like queer pain is being ignored to help further the plot of another young and distressed party girl.
It’s not hard to read Liusaidh, obsessed with her own sadness and knee-deep in quarter-life crisis indulgence, as a beautiful and witty young woman being held back by her own self-pity. It’s self-indulgent but not unrealistic. The film’s shot and set in Gillan’s hometown of Inverness, where one person takes their own life every 10 days on average. Liusaidh is haunted by suicide, not just of her friend Alistair, but her home’s landline is one digit away from a suicide helpline, so her family receive frequent phone calls of despair. There’s no explanation behind why their Scottish city holds such a stark statistic. Is it the lack of employment? The addiction so many people appear to have? Is it the crime levels? The Party’s Just Beginning wants the city to be another character but Gillan’s script offers no sense of place.
The storyline involving Alistair’s boyfriend, Ben (Jamie Quinn), also feels problematic. Liusaidh can’t stop harassing him about being a closeted member of the church. Is it institutional repression that he must be saved from or is she outing a man who just isn’t ready to confront his own sexuality? It comes across a hugely intolerant plot-point.
On her drunken travels, she meets Dale (Lee Pace with a flawless British accent), a divorced dad also spiralling in his own way. Pace is utterly charming but severely underused, as his entire arc could be removed and lose no character development or plot. Maybe he was only involved as a favour to his Guardians co-star.
One plot thread that does excel is Liusaidh’s conversations with one of the elderly people who misdial her phone expecting a suicide helpline. Through these conversations with an old widow, we finally get an insight into her character’s bleakness. She uses these chats as an outlet because, more than the booze and the hook-ups, she just needs a friend. In Alistair’s absence, Liusaidh left with parents too busy trying to impress their neighbours and a friend struggling with her own stepmother duties, and neither of them looks past her party girl attitude.
The Party’s Just Beginning, for better or worse, offers no false redemptions for any of these characters. It’s hard to feel anything for the supporting characters because we’re offered no level of understanding. But maybe that’s the point, as this isn’t really a narrative about Alistair, Ben, or Dale. It’s instead an accurate portrayal of Liusaidh’s depressed narcissism. It may problematically whitewash the problems of those around her, but it totally understands Liusaidh’s pit of despair.
Despite flimsy characters round its lead, The Party’s Just Beginning is nevertheless a strong writing and directorial feature debut from the former Doctor Who actress. With strong performances and acknowledgement that hedonistic lifestyles aren’t healthy, the movie’s an accurate portrayal of depression and millennial loneliness.
On-Demand 11 December 2019.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Karen Gillan.
starring: Karen Gillan, Lee Pace, Matthew Beard, Paul Higgins & Siobhan Redmond.