MR. ROOSEVELT: You Can’t Go Home Again
Mr. Roosevelt is about discovering changes about yourself when confronting your past, poignantly wrought by first-time director Noël Wells.
There’s something that happens when you go back to the place you’ve grown up (physically or mentally) — it’s never quite the same; people have left, the neighborhoods look different, businesses have changed hands. Mr. Roosevelt, the directorial debut of Noël Wells, is a film about this sensation. Wells plays Emily, a young woman who suddenly finds herself back home, realizing it’s not how she left it.
The film opens on a close-up of Wells against a stark red background. She addresses the camera directly, telling us about the first time she made people laugh. It’s startling, not solely because it confronts us head on, invoking a nonfictional confession, but also because it so distinctly apes the famous opening of Annie Hall. Wells, best known for one go-round at Saturday Night Live and as the season one love interest of Aziz Ansari’s Master of One, tells us she’s not interesting in playing coy in her first at bat.
A Revised History
When her ex-boyfriend, Eric (Nick Thune), calls her with news that her cat is dying, Emily takes the next flight from L.A. to Austin. Soon after arriving, her cat, the titular Mr. Roosevelt, dies. Without a return flight booked, Emily ends up staying at her ex’s place, the home they used to share. Unfortunately, Eric’s new live-in girlfriend has completely rearranged his life.
Their home is nearly unrecognizable to Emily. Celeste has redecorated the entire place, curating a very Instagrammable environment, with a wooden sofa, large plants, white marble and strategically placed chic patterns. And, under Celeste’s advice, Eric has ditched his aspirations as a musician to pursue a more pragmatic career in real estate. Emily can’t help but feel like she’s been replaced by a “new and improved” version of herself.
Though this dynamic of the new and improved girlfriend contrasted with the messy ex has become a well-tread trope, Wells is only using this scenario as a stitch of something larger. As mentioned, Mr. Roosevelt reveals itself to be interested in the concept of “home.” It’s not just Emily’s former boyfriend and residence that has changed, but Austin, her city, is hardly recognizable.
Her old comforts — the places with which she associated Austin — have vanished. In a painfully perceptive set of dialogue-less scenes, Emily finds out her cute old coffee joint has shuttered in favor of a third wave coffee shop. The type with apathetic baristas, thumping house music, white brick running bond walls and an aesthetic cribbed from old issues of Dwell.
“Time and Memory”
It’s not just that these comfortable places are no longer around for her to enjoy — Wells has a broader scope and understanding. The poignancy is that the City of Austin no longer cares about these types of establishments anymore. She’s seeing, first-hand, some of the reverberations of gentrification. The film isn’t about gentrification, per se, but is smart enough to account for how gentrification is constantly changing popular urban areas.
One day, she accompanies some Austin natives to the Barton Creek Greenbelt, a local body of water, and she explicitly mentions how nice it is to be somewhere in Austin that hasn’t changed in her absence. The group talks about constantly being displaced by “tech douches” who have moved in and built “condos on everything.” There’s an understanding here that the changes Emily has noticed also have ramifications for the people that still live there.
The comfort of this conversation — a mutual understanding of Austin’s current boom — is undercut when Emily notices the other women taking their bikini tops off in unison. She’s caught off guard when she’s told Greenbelt has become a topless hangout. It’s a mature moment that emphasizes that even the places most familiar to her have still managed to change.
In the closing of Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel You Can’t Go Home Again, his protagonist recites the titular line, “You can’t go back home … back to the places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” Mr. Roosevelt focuses on this realization. Her cat’s death is a metaphoric device about a part of her past that she can’t ever recover. The Austin she knew is relegated to the stuff of memory.
Between a Past and a Future
As much as it might’ve been marketed as such, or as much as it may cosmetically appear to be another “quirky” (a term Wells confronts head-on in the film) indie rom com typical of the Sundance circuit, there is an articulation of existential conflict here that isn’t typical of the films it may look like from a distance.
Mr. Roosevelt is a film about self-identity; it’s about someone who is forced to interrogate where they came from and where they’re going. It’s mentioned a few times that Emily is semi-famous on YouTube; she’s had a viral hit that people refer to as “the spaghetti video.” When it’s shown at a party, Emily is incredibly uncomfortable. Having to face her momentary internet fame is a constant reminder of how little she’s accomplished since then.
For anyone who’s most known via a silly piece of internet content, I’m sure it can easily become both haunting and defeating as you try to create things new things that people will care about. The video also signifies a poignant juxtaposition between Emily and Austin: while her former hometown changes too quickly, her life can’t seem to go anywhere. She’s stuck between a past that has moved on from her and a future that doesn’t want her.
What did you think of Mr. Roosevelt? Let me know in the comments.
Mr. Roosevelt was released theatrically November 22, 2017 and will hit Netflix on December 26, 2017.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.