Review of "First time a female director": the so-so distorted between theater and gender politics by Chelsea Peretti

Review of “First time a female director”: the so-so distorted between theater and gender politics by Chelsea Peretti

You can probably guess the premise of Chelsea Peretti’s occasionally funny film First time female director from its title. The comedy, written and directed by Brooklyn Nine Nine star, follows the misadventures of the first female director of a local theatre: as scandal pushes her into the spotlight and lack of institutional support tries to pull her out. In its 29 or so seasons, the productions of Glendale’s fictional Regis Theater were directed only by men. Sam, an anxious playwright played by Peretti, is about to change that.

As with so many recent historic firsts, Sam’s nomination is prompted by a man behaving badly. When a shocking impropriety rocks the community theater, its artistic director Sheldon Clifford (Andy Richter) fires famed director Greggy Thompson (Tim Heidecker). Sam wasn’t Sheldon’s first, second, or if we’re being honest, even third choice, as evidenced by the film’s lively and funny opening, but she’s eager and, above all, willing. Their conversation bears the embarrassment of these appointments; being first in any case is an exciting achievement and a guaranteed curse.

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First time female director

The bottom line

Fun, but struggles to keep up its momentum.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (fiction spotlight)
Launch: Chelsea Peretti, Amy Poehler, Kate Berlant, Benito Skinner, Megan Stalter
Director-writer: Chelsea Peretti

1 hour and 37 minutes

Sam is tasked with staging his play, a chaotic narrative about a rural family based on Peretti’s The rain is coming skit. Southern drama models itself on the works of Tennessee Williams and riffs on the kind of deep, authentic projects that claim to be both singular and universal: The rain is coming it is a play for our time, but also set centuries ago; it will mirror the nation and shed light on where we are going. Anyone with a deep affection for the world of theater will appreciate how much entertainment First time female director has with these tropes.

Peretti arranges his film according to the production timeline of Sam’s play. Bold title cards announce table read, local experts, trials, tech trials—you get the picture. These unobtrusive sections function as self-contained sketches, in which Peretti performs the delicate act of balancing humor and keen cultural observation without lapsing into an overly didactic tone. It’s very successful, especially in the Table Read and Tech Rehearsal sections, where we see how ill-prepared Sam is for the job.

There is a pattern — most evident at the top of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements — in which institutions replace their troubled white men with people from historically marginalized communities. The appointments are celebrated as progressive steps, but these new leaders are heirs to crumbling empires, burdened with the responsibility of resurrecting undersupported businesses. Peretti deftly highlights this tension through Sam’s chameleonic demeanor. She’s a director searching for her own voice and vision, but the stakes of her experiments—trying on different leadership styles in the hope that one will stick—are much higher. Failure is not an option for progress symbols.

The results of Sam’s attempts are awkward and a bit mixed. He tries to ride like a lion – aggressive and scary – but this fits unnaturally. Taking the more honest route and admitting your insecurities also backfires. However, she can’t give up as the threat of a mutiny led by actor Rudy (Benito Skinner) haunts her. Rudy, a cunning and power-hungry figure, has the unequivocal support of the rest of the cast (played by Kate Berlant, Blake Anderson, Megan Stalter and Jak Knight) and wields it against an insecure Sam.

Their feud sustains itself until it does, and that could be the catchphrase for First time female director all in all. The movie starts off on a strong note with lots of easy laughs, most of which are a result of Sam’s interactions with his terrible therapist (Amy Poehler), some of his fights with the troupe of artists who help run the show: the actors who intimidate Sam, the billionaires whose donations keep the theater going, and the shifting troupe whose moods swing wildly from contempt to affection. The rest of the laughs can be attributed to the mockumentary style of the film, which adds to its overall gonzo mood.

The movie starts to sag as we get into Sam’s story, which requires more insight than Peretti can give us. The beats are rarely the same, but hit similar notes; character issues feel repetitive; AND the film surrounds the same ideas until plot points need tidying up. Despite the laughs along the way, little new ground is broken when it comes to the film’s conclusions.

Indeed, as a satire on the social power of white women in American society (their glass ceilings are lower than those of other marginalized peoples), the film risks becoming what it seeks to mock: Peretti’s critiques of bumbling attempts at Sam to make her rural drama socially relevant after seeing a black woman’s rival play land too bumpy to make sense. And in his last acts, First time female director it strays from its promise of caustic distortions and ends, instead, with a mildly sour lesson.