Sam Cowell is a comedian and au pair. Or rather, she was. Now, the former comic (played with pitch-perfect world-weariness by Rachel Sennott) mostly lies around the house she shares with her roommates in Toronto and struggles to microwave food. The central tension of Ally Pankiw’s debut feature, I Used To Be Funny, revolves around the simple question of what happened.
Comedy and trauma is familiar territory for Pankiw; she directed season one of Netflix’s Feel Good, which followed a semi-fictionalized version of comedian Mae Martin grappling with their own personal demons. I Used To Be Funny feels like a full-length version riffing on some of the same ideas, complete with similar perma-dusk lighting and a shared penchant for moody indie needle drops.
Much of the story comes through flashbacks, exploring the tangled relationship between Sam and her young charge Brooke (Vancouver’s own Olga Petsa). Their shared scenes shine, as the two navigate the awkward world of teen angst and genuine emotional turmoil with plenty of half-thoughts, implied feelings, and nebulous care. What does Sam owe to Brooke—and does she fairly manage those expectations?
For a comedy-drama, the laughs are light. The second half of the film struggles to find the levity in its dark subject matter, sliding sometimes into uncomfortable in a way that jives with the script’s funnier bon mots. And while funny, Sam’s mental health is never played for laughs—but the fumbling way that almost everyone (including her roommates, her ex-boyfriend, and herself) has no idea how to help most definitely is.
I Used to Be Funny is smart, timely, and deeply felt. There’s plenty to chew on—though it’s bittersweet.
October 3, 8:45pm, Rio Theatre
October 5, 9:15pm, International Village