One of my favorite things about watching movies for a living is getting the opportunity to experience the work of a new filmmaker, then over time seeing that artist develop and hone their voice with each new project. Case in point: the wonderful indie filmmaker Madeleine Olnek.
Olnek specializes in wry, deadpan, and affably unpolished comedies, first gaining attention with her 2011 feature "Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same," a black-and-white sci-fi romance between a shy greeting card store employee and the woman she doesn't realize is from outer-space. She followed that up with 2013's "The Foxy Merkins," an absurdist buddy comedy following the wacky misadventures of two lesbian sex workers.
While sometimes hampered by their limited budgets, both films are inventive, witty, character-driven films from a distinctive voice I immediately knew I wanted to hear more from.
At a time when many (frequently white male) rookie directors are plucked from the world of micro-budget indies and immediately handed the reins of a massive blockbuster feature, Olnek has gone a different route.
Each of her films have remained the indiest of indie productions, but that's also freed Olnek from the pressures of working within the studio system. Over those years, she's been able to grow and evolve as a filmmaker at a more deliberate pace. And each of Olnek's projects have grown slightly more ambitious, with her latest being a full-fledged historical dramedy with a recognizable star.
"Wild Nights with Emily," is a hilarious and moving biopic that reimagines the life of Emily Dickinson (played by Molly Shannon) and recontextualizes the writer's work through the lens of her sexuality, specifically her lifelong romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson (the hilarious Susan Ziegler, a veteran of all three Olnek features). And it's Olnek's strongest film yet.
Emily and Susan were friends since childhood, and we meet them during their teenage years (with Dana Melanie as Emily and Sasha Frolova as Susan), when their friendship first blossomed into a love affair. Susan eventually married Emily's brother Austin (Kevin Seal), moving into the house next door. Living as neighbors allowed the two women to continue their relationship as an open secret for the next 40 years.
The film includes a narrator of sorts, in the form of the smug and opportunistic Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz). Based on an actual person, Todd was the one who "discovered" Dickinson's trove of 1,800 poems and took it upon herself to publish them four years after Dickinson's 1886 death. But not before taking the time to edit and erase the bits she deemed controversial. It's worth noting that she also happened to be Austin Dickinson's mistress.
Despite the presence of a marquee talent like Shannon, "Wild Nights with Emily" maintains Olnek's shaggy style. With a tone that feels like "Masterpiece Theatre" by way of "Drunk History," it's a thrilling effort to rescue Dickinson from the narrative that's defined her.
The story was inspired by a New York Times piece about how spectrographic technology allowed researchers to recover words and phrases that had been erased from Dickinson's writing, most crucially the name "Sue."
Running with that fact, Olnek's script tosses out the widely accepted history of Dickinson's life. Her vision is a far cry from the image of a miserable, sickly recluse that's been popularized over the years and, the film argues, the result of Emily's legacy being filtered by Mabel Todd's eyes. In addition to possessing Shannon's expert comedic prowess, the film's version of Emily is a strong-willed woman who lived fully and loved deeply.
Throughout, you sense a real love for Dickinson's writing, and it's obvious a great deal of research went into its creation. Olnek consulted with Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith, whose book, "Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson" focused on the skewed legacy of the author. She also received the approval of the Harvard University Press and the Amherst College Special Collections, which allowed access to their archives of Dickinson's poems and letters.
"Wild Nights With Emily" is funny, genuinely touching, and committed to the kind of smart-but-stupid silliness that's a joy to watch. It's filled with biting wit and genuine emotion, all the way through the heartbreaking end credits. Plus, did I mention it's a period piece? That Olnek is able to do all that with such a visibly low budget is all the more impressive.
I eagerly await the time when some ahead-of-the-curve studio offers her a generous budget worthy of her talent. Which is not to say I need a Madeleine Olnek "Avengers" movie -- for all I know, she has no interest in making a bigger budget film of any kind. But I thrill at the possibilities of what she might do with enough resources to let her imagination truly run wild.