Every first novel is about a writer’s past, especially if it’s set on Venus. It’s the second book that points toward a career. In first novels – whether the writer knows it or not – prose functions like a self-portrait. Forget readers; what’s important is: owning up. If you’re lucky (forgetting sales, forgetting success of any material kind), you make peace with yourself. In Lovely By Surprise, a virgin novelist writes about two brothers who skipper a landlocked boat. If the brothers seem troubled, first-novel logic says: look to the author. This is a movie where fantasy-trappings are used to catch real guilt.
Marian (Carrie Preston) has a problem: she doesn’t know what happens next. She’s a writer, but her imagination is stuck. Her mentor (Austin Pendleton) thinks her novel needs tragedy. Marian seems to feel even fictional tragedy like a knife. But her mentor persists: kill somebody! Marion’s novel only has two brothers, so one of them has to go. Filled with guilt, and doubt, and good-intentions, Marian tries to write a death scene, but her doomed character escapes. He flees (so it appears) into the real the world, where he meets a car salesman. The car salesman and his daughter are drowning in grief. Perhaps a fictional person can save them. Meantime, Marian searches for her truant creation, blaming herself for his loss.
The key to Carrie Preston’s performance is that, even when she’s happy, you’re worried about her. Maybe it’s the book her character is writing: there are so few people in it. When a writer excludes the world to such an extent, the suspicious mind thinks: something must have happened. It’s to Preston’s credit that you feel the warmth of her character alongside the quirks. Her job in the movie is to let us know the stakes. When she wavers, so does everybody. In a scene where she talks to her father on the phone – and we realise: he’s dead – Preston comes apart like a flare dissipating, leaving us wiser about her and deeply concerned.
Reg Rogers plays a car salesman who speaks with such forgiveness you know he’s at the end of his rope. Only men who are beaten look so tenderly on life. Rogers has a great scene where he talks a man into and then out of buying a car. He loves people too much to be a salesman. His crisis (besides his career) stems from a death in the family. His wife has drowned, leaving him a single parent to a mute daughter. When a man escaped from a novel comes into Rogers’ life, he treats it as a blessing. It turns out: this man can help his daughter speak. Whether the man from the novel is real or not isn’t half as important as what the little girl says.
The most striking image in the movie is a girl standing on a diving board. She’s come back to where one of her parents died. Framed from behind, the girl is like a compass needle, pointed straight at her father. He stands to one side, unsure why she’s brought him back to this place. Perhaps he’s thinking of Raymond Chandler’s line: “Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool”. The movie doesn’t over-play this image of the little girl, but when the ending comes – and Marian is stood pool-side – it’s worth keeping in mind that Marian’s father is dead. The car salesman may never meet the writer, but that doesn’t mean they’re unrelated.
People write to edit life. Some people take out the bad parts; some people take out the good. Bad editing is when you leave too much of either. In Lovely By Surprise, a writer wants personal tragedy expunged. The movie is about the fine line between creativity and self-evasion. Every writer needs to draw on slightly exaggerated hopes. But when you don’t know what your story is about – when you don’t even know your story is about you – as a writer, you’re drowning. First novels are about recognising what shapes your writing. For Marian, that means going back to the pool.