'The Nowhere Inn' Review: St. Vincent And Carrie Brownstein Tackle The Surreal Side Of Fame [Sundance 2020]

On stage, St. Vincent is sexy, mysterious, and seemingly all-powerful. Offstage, though, she's Annie Clark – and Annie Clark is a bit of a boring nerd. Or so says The Nowhere Inn, a surreal meta-comedy about fame – and what we demand from the famous people we idolize. Framed as both a faux documentary and a narrative film, The Nowhere Inn finds Clark's best friend Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame, setting out to make a documentary about St. Vincent on tour. But as Clark tells us right from the start, in a Blair Witch Project-style warning, things don't go according to plan, and the documentary was never finished.

The Nowhere Inn contrasts footage of Clark on stage as St. Vincent, guitar blazing, lipstick smeared across her face, belting out one great tune after another, with the real Annie Clark off stage. And it becomes apparent quickly to us – and to documentary filmmaker Brownstein – that the off-stage footage is, well...boring. When Brownstein turns to Clark's bandmates and asks her to identify something special about her, the only thing any of them can really come up with is: "Her music."

Beyond that, Clark just wants to play Nintendo Switch, turn in early after a concert, or go to a farmers' market to score some delicious radishes. It's not exactly exciting cinema, and at one point Brownstein grows so frustrated that she Googles "great documentaries", as if looking for pointers – or ideas to rip-off. Time and time again, Brownstein urges Clark to spice things up a bit. Not to lie, exactly, but to try to find a way to be more...interesting. Clark doesn't seem to take this to heart until the one-two punch of first not being recognized by security and denied entry to the venue she's playing and then overhearing a journalist who interviewed her describe her as boring. This triggers a darkness within Clark, and she morphs fully into her St. Vincent persona, even when the cameras aren't rolling.

The move understandably confuses Brownstein, who finds she can no longer have a normal conversation with her friend, and ends up forced to film an impromptu sex video of Clark and her girlfriend, Dakota Johnson (playing herself). And the more serious Clark gets about embracing her St. Vincent identity, the more unmoored and unhinged Brownstein starts to become.

Clark commands the screen here, and watching her descent is both funny and a little disturbing. Brownstein is best when she's acting casual, or perplexed. When the third act requires her to become frightened and overwrought, though, she comes across as too comical, as if she can't shake her work on Portlandia. But it's a treat to watch Brownstein and Clark act off each other, especially in "flashback" scenes, shot on scratchy home video, where the two artists joke around and discuss their careers and friendship.

At times, The Nowhere Inn begins to resemble Always Shine, Sophia Takal's chiller about jealousy and fame, and David Lynch's Hollywood nightmare Mulholland Drive (the Lynchian influence is heavy here – there's even a scene where Clark finds herself pushing her way through billowing red curtains that look plucked directly from the Black Lodge). But the film, directed by Portlandia helmer Bill Benz, is too much of a hodge-podge for its own good.

The story about Clark morphing into St. Vincent and abandoning her old life to become something crueler and hipper, is intriguing – but it's constantly interrupted by vignette and skits that would be more at home on a TV series, such as one where Clark assembles a fake Texas family and forces Brownstein to film them performing a song together. And all of this is broken up by concert footage, which looks and sounds great, but seriously hurts the pacing (the film feels about 15 minutes too long overall).

That doesn't mean there aren't plenty of striking moments, though. One late scene has St. Vincent singing a song on stage while another version of the singer stands in front of her, crooning the same song. It's a haunting moment that highlights the double-nature on display here, but tonally, it doesn't quite fit with what comes before, or after it. If only The Nowhere Inn settled on more scenes like this, and less of the skits and concert footage.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10