Laughing through the pain isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but for standup comedians it is a necessity. Most of the more successful comedians base their sets on events and moments that are often stemmed from trauma and heartbreak. But when the pain no longer allows you to use your biggest outlet it can be hard to find a way back to any sort of normalcy. I USED TO BE FUNNY directed by Ally Pankiw can be seen as a dramedy, but it more fits into its own shell of “traumedy.” A film not just about trying to find your way back, but normalizing being lost especially after the wrongdoings of evil men are put upon you. PTSD is the focus but Pankiw is also able to create a tension filled quasi-thriller keeping the audience uncomfortable and in need of a good punchline.
Sam (Rachel Sennott) used to be funny. An up and coming standup comedian in Toronto, Sam knows her best jokes come from her encounters with men. A young woman who borders the line of millennial and Gen Z, Sam now spends most of her days in bed choosing to be alone instead of with her two comedian roommates, Philip and Paige (Caleb Hearon and Sabrina Jalees respectively). Sam is battling some traumatic memories and even if we do not know what the instances are at first, Pankiw allows our minds to take their own guesses, and based on your own experiences will most likely find the right source. To make matters worse, Sam sees on the news that a Brooke (Olga Petsa), a young girl she used to nanny for, has been missing. The film with its sharp editing brings us between the past and the present where we see Sam meeting Brooke and her father Cameron (Jason Jones) while still playing out Sam’s PTSD of the present. The film never wants to become this big mystery thriller of what happened to Sam, but rather build a strong foundation between the two woman to make it all the more unnerving when things go wrong.
I USED TO BE FUNNY may be the feature debut for Pankiw, but the film feels rooted in experience and realism. While many films today deal with woman fighting to survive in a world of male domination, most of the scripts come off as afternoon special. There often seems to be this disconnect between filmmaker and the generation she/they are trying to cover. Pankiw does not have such a problem. This is credit to both her writing and the detailed performance of Rachel Sennott. Sennott who is quickly making a big name for herself in several outrageous gen z roles (Bodies Bodies Bodies, Shiva Baby and the fantastic upcoming Bottoms), but here is a greta display of an actress with phenomenal range. Yes her quick remarks are still intact, but Sennott as Rachel gives many small moments involving just a glance or half smile that it becomes all you need to know to understand her pain. A comedian Sam is always trying to collect new material even amongst men who belittle her or use sarcasm as an attempt to get her into bed. A scene involving some of Cameron’s cop friends watching Sam’s standup on YouTube never comes off as them complimenting her but rather one word away from calling her a bitch but still hoping to sleep with her. It is a moment that many women will feel connected and speaks volumes to Pankiw’s ability to relate to not just women all together, but this younger generation who are still trying to figure out how to survive these moments.
While the film never shies away from its intense themes it still knows how to have a good laugh. There is great realism to the film in touching on how do we move on from horrific moments, but also not belittle them. Even as e begin to learn the events that transpired, Sam as she begins to open back up to life also finds ways to laugh with the situation, but never at it. “I actually made it all up for attention” she jokes with her roommate, in a scene that proves that Sam needs friendship more than anything right now. But all that can be hard when Brooke continues to run away and Sam is the only one who knows where she is going. Petsa as Brooke carries a difficult role and one that we often don’t see as much. A role that not only questions Sam’s intentions but one that allows us to see how trauma is dealt with from many different angles. In a time where Twitter has deemed everything black and white it is refreshing to see a script dive into the heavily grey area with no holds back.
The film even with its heavy subject still finds time to be greatly entertaining. Sam’s search for a missing Brooke plays out more like the bygone area of film where story and character’s motivations where played out overtime and not rushed for an audience with short attention span. After all nothing in this film should be take lightly, and the film’s editor Curt Lobb allows the moments to hold great weight especially when some are revisited. I USED TO BE FUNNY may not have all the answers on how one copes, nor should it, but here is a film that is knows the healing process is a long one, but it can happen one joke at a time.
I USED TO BE FUNNY premiered at the South by South West Film Festival.