Not everyone can make the messy young woman archetype as charming and quirky as Greta Gerwig can, but she certainly started a trend. In the long overdue push to center women’s perspectives, conventional romantic plots have been replaced by gritty tales of lost young women spiraling out, leaving trails of chaos in their wake. With men’s stories crowding most of film history, a host of untapped material awaits the burgeoning genre of the messy young woman. As with all familiar stories, however, it’s all too easy to court cliché — even when trying so hard to flout conventions.
The actress Brittany Snow, best known for her role in the “Pitch Perfect” films, makes her directorial debut with “Parachute,” a meandering portrait of a particular type of lost young woman. Played by “Yellowjackets” star Courtney Eaton, unemployed 20-something Riley is a child of privilege careening between an eating disorder and extreme codependency. In her attempt to heal her abandonment issues and stay healthy, she gloms onto amiable Ethan (Thomas Mann), a wounded giver who gets off on being walked all over. There’s very little structure to the narrative beyond their dance of mutual self-flagellation, and neither character is charismatic enough to help this ambling bittersweet romance leave a mark.
Drawing from personal experience, Snow co-wrote the “Parachute” script with Becca Gleason, and her voice is most promising when she gets down to specifics. There are times when the film feels like a gritty after school special aimed at teens, like a heavy handed scene of Riley getting caught licking gloopy batter out of a trash can. Eaton tries her best during a scene where Riley inks up her perceived “problem areas” and scream cries at the mirror, but the melodrama feels too performative to cut through the maudlin clamor. There may be a far more compelling story inside Riley’s head, a glimmer of which can be seen during a snappy edit of the way she sizes up other women. As body parts flash past, Riley sheepishly describes the obsessive cycle of comparison, offering a picture of the character and her unique neuroses.
The film opens with Riley waiting to be picked up from rehab, the nature of which remains obscure until later on. When she’s stood up by her absent mother, her best friend Casey (Francesca Reale) comes through with a ride. Casey cajoles Riley out that night, where she meets hapless Ethan, a kind-hearted soul who is reeling from a recent break-up. Though she’s supposed to abstain from dating as part of her recovery, she takes him home anyway, where they begin a series of thwarted romantic encounters that always end with Riley either freaking out or changing her mind. In theory, this would be a good example of ongoing consent, if it didn’t seem so obvious that codependent Riley was taking advantage of Ethan’s good nature and emotional generosity.
A cheesy montage includes an aimless trip down a hardware store aisle (apparently, Riley grew up so sheltered that she doesn’t know how to change a lightbulb), to illustrate Ethan and Riley’s blossoming situation-ship. In stilted conversations with her therapist (Gina Rodriguez), Riley insists, “it’s not a relationship, it’s a friendship,” to demonstrate how she’s following the rules of her program. Never mind that she sees Ethan every night and never spends any time alone.
Though the movie’s timeline is a bit nebulous, their intimate friendship eventually plays out over the course few years. By way of exposition, Riley clumsily exclaims “now that it’s been over a year,” to announce that she’s finally allowed to date. Of course, she chooses a player from work and not the loyal friend who’s been by her side the entire time. Ethan’s character comes into focus a little too late to make a mark, when an alcoholic father (Joel McHale) appears out of nowhere to fill in his backstory. A tense family thanksgiving explains Ethan’s attraction to caregiving roles, but the sudden extra characters feel like an afterthought from far afield.
For her part, Eaton is a little too put together and likable for the direction “Parachute” seemed to be headed. As written, Riley is a self-absorbed rich girl who is so wrapped up in her own mental illness that she can’t see the way she’s using Ethan. But Eaton’s Riley is sweet and naive, rarely obnoxious or messy in a way that would explain her behavior, though it certainly explains why Ethan hangs around. If watching two lost sweethearts cling to each other like lost lambs sounds about as fun as skydiving without a parachute, you may find yourself looking for the ripcord.
“Parachute” premiered in Narrative Feature Competition at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.