Don’t Think Twice is a bittersweet punch in the heart

My biggest fear, personally, is that I’ll get “stuck” in life. I’m pathologically afraid of making the wrong move and as such I tend to pursue the easiest route, the life decision of least resistance. I fear that eventually down the road leads to waking up in my 30s and realizing I didn’t make the wrong move. It doesn’t help that my other worry is that I pursue my dream, wake up in my 30s, and realize I’m going nowhere with it. Either way, I fear that eventually life will corner me and I’ll find that instead of moving along, I’ve been needing to fight my way out.

That bit of shit you don’t actually care about is the way of introducing that writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s second feature film Don’t Think Twice was a punch directly in my heart because it happens to revolve emotionally and narratively around a very specific set of neuroses that I happen to share.

Which to be fair is how a lot of these smaller independent dramedies (the most common form of white person indie picture) work. Various levels of filmmaking and acting and writing strength resonate at wildly different levels based on how specifically you feel reflected in the story. Between this and Sleepwalk with Me, Birbiglia seems particularly apt to handle the set of neuroses and the experiences that most directly resonate with me, though I am only a comedy nerd and not a comedian myself.

So, keeping in mind that I just said all of the above, I want to therefore argue that the strength of Don’t Think Twice rests not simply in the resonance it holds for myself and those specifically sharing my worries, but more specifically in the continuing and exciting maturation of Birbiglia as a filmmaker and the immense talent he has within his cast.

Don’t Think Twice is the story of The Commune, an improv troupe based out of New York in an old theater on its last legs before it shuts down. Led by Miles (Mike Birbiglia), a bitter older improv teacher who was “this close” to making it onto Weekend Live, the movie’s not-so-subtle Saturday Night Live-expy. When two of them, Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) and Sam (Gillian Jacobs), get the chance to audition for the show, and Jack gets it, the group starts to question its coherence and their talent, wondering if they really all can make it.

It’s a film immersed in a world, that of improv comedy for those on the upswing, and part of its charm is that it feels so remarkably specific. I can’t speak from personal experience, just from hearing hours upon hours of stories and reading book after book, but the film has a remarkable verisimilitude. Anyone in the middle of an early struggle with breaking in the art world understand the camaraderie of failure and minor success as well as the weird sort of formless poverty that makes it up day to day.

It’s that specificity that really lets what Mike Birbiglia’s doing here shine. He puts you in the headspace, in the emotional state that’s required to push through day by day in pursuit of a dream that seems out of reach. It’s a film that has people doing things that are in any other film unlikeable, and hell, may still be in this film. Miles lashes out at those around him, there’s a scene in which our two most “harmless” characters Allison (Kate Miccuci) and Bill (Chris Gethard) rip into the first bit of hard work and success their groupmate Lindsay (Tami Sagher) gets. We never lose sight of the fundamental likeability or decency of these people, but Birbilgia helps us understand why they do those things.

He’s able to thread the delicate emotional needle by putting us in their headspace and positing this as desperate, as a zero-sum game. The idea that one person making it means a lot of other people got passed over to have them get there. There’s a sort of rightful bitterness in success that Birbiglia puts in, the idea that we’re not always just unconditionally happy, but that we tend to ask “Why them?” and “Why not me?”

To be fair, so much of that is in the writing of this film. As a director, Birbiglia’s skill is chiefly with actors, his visuals merely doing their job. It’s not filmed improv, there’s a quiet melancholy that Don’t Think Twice is filmed with, the bittersweet sadness of a city that seems to passing them by, the same crappy apartment on the same crappy street you come home to after the same crappy bar, no movement in years. It’s the job that this film needs, nothing impressive, but something that makes it all the slightly more poignant

But let’s talk about acting skill, because that’s where the power of Don’t Think Twice really rests. They’re all great. Birbiglia’s willingness to go dark and play the asshole is great, Gethard has such a palpable sadness, and Micucci and Sagher both play their parts with grace.

Perhaps in an accidental bit of textual turning into real life though, it’s Key and Jacobs who absolutely wow in this movie. From her turn on Love, I already knew Jacobs had significant dramatic chops, and she brings that same play of broken and okay with it here. She’s remarkably expressive and willing to hit hard as she needs to and pull back when necessary.

And from his work on Key & Peele, I’d always suspected Key’s acting prowess, it’s nice to have it confirmed. Key wears every part he has to play so well, he’s remarkably naturalistic without ever feeling untrained. There’s something incredibly watchable about him as an actor, like you really do just want to see him constantly on-screen. Both are so, so good and any smart producer should be looking how to snatch them up. Especially considering the two have remarkable chemistry and in a film of puncturing and heartbreaking scenes, definitely own the one that actually came the closest to knocking me flat out. Those of you who see it will know what I mean, it’s phenomenal.

Don’t Think Twice is a great sort of film, one willing to go a bit further and take its own path emotionally and one that has an enormous amount of talent allowing it to go there. It’s a dramedy heavy on the dram and that bittersweet can be hard to swallow. It’s cut with comedy, these are still talented comedic performers and any naturalistic showing is going to have a lot of laughs, and there are plenty. But it’s to fill out a world of success and failure, and ask the question of how you move on when the dream gets too hard to keep going.

Grade: A