Over the course of a long evening, a woman celebrating her birthday gets to know a new friend while navigating her relationship with an old one. Jesse Thurston directs “Bad at Birthdays,” a naturalistic portrait about a group of NYC friends spending the night in Stratford, Connecticut. Told in a floating, overlapping style, and with an unbelievably tender touch, Thurston accumulates a cascading series of tiny moments into a wallop of nuanced emotion and intimacy. Elnaz is an aloof type with a gruff exterior, nowhere near as enthusiastic about her birthday as her old friend, Leah, who has basically forced her out of the city to celebrate (“signature cocktails!” she exclaims, trying to set the mood). Upstairs is Arch, a sculpture artist working in an attic studio, who has no plans of attending the get-together until Leah drags him down. Rounding out the crew is a new arrival from the city, Bobby, a woman from Hawaii, and a possible crush that Elnaz knows from a park soccer league. Someone we don’t meet, but feel, is Elnaz’s current girlfriend, Shelby, who weighs on the mind of Elnaz as she begins to flirt with Bobby. We spend the evening getting to know the group, in rotating configurations, and undulating levels of enjoyment. The poetic mood is almost gothic at times, as it weaves in themes of death and mortality; in fact, though the film is firmly planted in realism, there is a ghostly atmosphere throughout. The action is often left vague as character detail is incrementally doled out, brimming with subtext and unspoken dialogue. It’s a film that requires patience and vigilance but if you lock onto its level, it packs an indelible punch, particularly in the final couple of scenes. Thurston previously directed “Snow Day,” and “Space,” both of which we featured in the last couple of years. -KA.
Director: Jesse Thurston. Cast: Dominique Brillon, Dana Kaplan-Angle, Layla Khoshnoudi, Joseph Lymous. Director of Photography: Suzi Sadler. Editor: Jesse Thurston. Producer: Molly Lyons. Producer: Kyrha Lever. Producer: Jesse Thurston.