Released: 13th September
Seen: 7th September (Advance Screening, Embargo Date displayed on screen when audience turned up)
A Simple Favour is based on the 2017 novel by Darcey Bell. The story follows mommy-blogger Stephanie Smothers (Played by Anna Kendrick), an innocent widow who is known for trying to sign up for everything at her son’s school and being made fun of by the other parent’s for her bubbly nature. After school one day Stephanie’s son asks if he can have a playdate with his new friend, the son of Emily Nelson (Played by Blake Lively) who is everything that Stephanie is not. Emily is a drinker, a tough woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone and who treats the word “Fuck” like it’s a comma. While their children have their playdate, Stephanie and Emily bond over slightly weak martini’s and being hardworking mums, Emily even introduces her new friend to her husband, Sean Nelson (Played by Henry Golding), a writer who hasn’t written a novel for a decade but is a very attentive father and is currently a teacher at a college. They begin to create a new routine where Stephanie and Emily have regular playdates for their kids and talk about their lives, Emily constantly trying to get Stephanie to let go of her past and be a little less constantly nervous. One day Emily calls Stephanie and asks her to pick up Emily’s child from school because of an emergency and, because she’s impossibly easy to talk into things, Stephanie agrees to do it. Several days past and it becomes apparent that Emily isn’t coming back, and no one knows why.
The obvious comparison to Gone Girl is easy to make, that’s why I’m going to make it. Both movies have a very similar idea of a relationship that seems perfect and a tragic event making that facade unravel slowly, complete with twists and turns at every chance. Some of the twists are pretty obvious, even if you didn’t read the book, but a fair amount of them take the audience by surprise and make sense in context. A Simple Favour differs from Gone Girl in the details though. The movie plays a little more with the idea of secrets and lies. Emily is repeatedly called a pathological liar, the school moms are known for gossiping, the movie relies heavily on the unreliable narrator trope, a child is accused of lying to deal with the grief, and so on and so forth. In this story, everyone has a problem telling the truth which means that there’s no real way to know exactly who could’ve done what, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat right up until the end.
A mystery like this is only able to work if the characters are genuinely engaging and god damn are they ever. Anna Kendrick is an incredible lead, her adorable awkwardness works wonderfully and gives the audience someone who we easily relate too. Her kind helpful nature is one we’re all familiar with, we’ve all seen someone whose mother signed up for every possible job at the PTA and the character feels real. Her little vlogs where she tries to talk about crafting but can’t help inform her audience about what is going on with the case is a clever framing device that helps remind the audience of just how much Stephanie has grown throughout the movie. The first vlog is adorable and awkward, she’s controlled and almost feels robotic but by the end her character is relaxed and more playful, showing how the ordeal she’s been through has allowed her to have a breakthrough and let go of her past that holds her back for a large chunk of the movie.
Blake Lively is, objectively, the best thing about this movie. She strides on screen in her insanely expensive high fashion attire, drops a few killer lines that shock the audience into laughter and steals the movie from everyone else. She owns every scene she’s in and walks around with more confidence than a human should be able to possess. She switches emotions on a dime with effortless ease, going between genuinely kind to intimidating to playful to potentially dangerous sometimes within the same scene. Blake certainly isn’t an unknown but some roles are able to take a good career and make it legendary. This is the kind of performance that explodes careers and throws them to the next level. She has the difficult task of taking a character that should, by all rights, be intensely hateable and somehow making them enjoyable to watch. Every scene she’s in is elevated into something truly special just by how she portrays her character, particularly during the climax.
Henry Golding proves that he really is a good actor, no matter how humble he tries to be while he’s handling press for Crazy Rich Asians. The thing about his character in Crazy Rich Asians is that, for the most part, he’s basically playing Prince Charming. His character over there was effectively flawless to the point where it was almost comical just how effortlessly kind and cool he was. Here, he’s far from flawless and it’s really great to see that he can present this character who is still an ideal, but also is completely powerless around his wife and is too engrossed in his work to spend time with his son. His recurring writer’s block finally breaks after he stops trying to pretend to be a perfect person, and those imperfections help with advancing the story.
What else really helps is that this film is just fantastically shot, from the stylistic opening titles that set the mood perfectly to a slow-motion shot that actually made me gasp with how effortlessly it revealed a key element of a character’s personality and just how it worked in the context of the story. Scenes of physical comedy are shot like they were right from a thriller, including a particularly hilarious scene involving Anna Kendrick and a tight dress that keeps using it’s editing to build tension as the conversation she has in the scene makes her more and more uneasy. Scenes where characters tell each other their deep dark secrets are made interesting when the visuals we’re being shown tell us the actual truth of what happened, even if the characters don’t want to admit it.
Those little visuals also help create a ton of great dark adult humor that works wonderfully. There’s enough humor to keep this from being just a regular Gone Girl copy, which it could’ve been if the film wasn’t aware that there is an incredible amount of comedic value in the over-the-top story and embraces that comedy in several moments that are helped because the film is being led by a pair of great comedic actresses. The other thing about the comedy is that the film uses it to trick the audience into a false sense of security. It pulls you in with a good few jokes so that when it takes a turn to embrace the dark thriller side, it hits even harder. It plays both elements as carefully as it can and that’s just delightful.
The entire film is delightful, a thrilling ride through a dark tale set in suburbia that is there to give the audience one hell of a good time. I found myself laughing and gasping in equal measure and have found a film I’m joyfully looking forward to revisiting later. There are still several months left in the year and maybe when I look back on it I’ll think differently, but right now A Simple Favour is my favourite film of the year and I couldn’t recommend it more.