Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Olivia Thirlby: An underrated talent

If you recognize her at all, it's as Ellen Page's bestie in Juno. Olivia Thirlby is one of my favorite actresses. She has not had a great run of late, but when she's in a good part, she's dynamite.

I first saw Thirlby in Juno. I remember reading a few articles and reviews which pointed to her as 'one to watch', so I filed her away in my mental rolodex just in case she did break out. One small part I remember seeing her in was when she played a deranged method actress in one of the few good segments of New York, I Love You. That was a cute bit, but the movie that made me realize what a good actress Thirlby was is ironically one of her worst: 2008's The Secret.

David Duchovny plays a grieving widower who discovers that his wife's spirit has possessed their daughter's body. No beating around the bush -- this movie is bad. However, in the role of the possessed daughter, Thirlby is in a completely different film. While Duchovny mooches about and struggles to convey any emotion beyond 'comatose', Thirlby lends a maturity and sense of wonder to her role, managing to pull the ridiculous conceit off. In a movie filled with cliches and half-baked ideas, Thirlby takes this whole mess on her shoulders and elevates it ever so slightly above the sentimental tripe it should be.

Her best role thus far has been in The Wackness. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50, Warm Bodies), it tells the story of a teenage drug dealer (Josh Peck) and his relationship with one of his clients, an up market shrink in a midlife crisis (Ben Kingsley). Thirlby plays Kingsley's step-daughter, another client who is also the unobtainable object of Peck's affections.

The movie is somewhat half-baked (no pun intended), but the subplot involving Peck and Thirlby is great. She is the unobtainable girl who the hero finally gets a shot at. In what should be a tired cliché of a part, Thirlby is marvelous. While she ultimately dumps Peck, she never comes across as the typical teenage heart breaker. As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that the character's vapidity is only skin deep -- like Peck's character, she is just a scared kid trying to find her way into adulthood. This is a difficult balance to strike but Thirlby plays this dichotomy to a tee, and steals the movie from her veteran co-stars.
For a moment after The Wackness, it seemed like Thirlby was on the cusp: she was included in Vanity Fair's 'new wave' of young actors in 2008, and had a taste of bigger budget genre fare with The Darkest Hour and Dredd. However, those movies bombed (Dredd at least had the benefit of good reviews), and ever since Thirlby has largely stuck to supporting roles, mostly in  experimental and indie dramas.

Dredd is probably the most interesting role from this period, and while the box office snub may have killed her momentum a bit, that should not take away from her performance in the film. In a movie built on minimalism and economy, Thirlby's understated performance is a perfect complement to the movie's pared down aesthetic. Since the character arc of movie ultimately rests on her shoulders, it is a tribute to her abilities that she manages to transcend her slight build and make Anderson a believable action heroine.

Thirlby has several films either in post or due for release. Hopefully, one of these roles will give her the heat she needs to get the recognition her talents deserve.