It’s hard for a little indie comedy to get noticed, so one of the ways to drum up interest is with a twisted premise. ‘Preggoland’ shoots specifically for that particular mode of grabbing your attention with a cynical concept rooted in bad behavior, and then manages to commit with enough melancholic comedic charm to be worth the time investment. The movie is no masterpiece, but wisely also doesn’t attempt to be one. Instead, it charms on its own small and dark terms.
Longtime character actress Sonja Bennett stars in her own script as Ruth, a 35-year-old flake who never got over the fact that high school ended. She still lives in her father’s (James Caan) basement, works at the checkout counter of a grocery store, and dedicates her life to a series of benders. Her friends have all gotten married and started pooping out babies, while Ruth shows up to the baby showers hungover and brings ironic dildo presents.
There was a time when her friends found that amusing, but that time has long since passed. Now, Ruth is something of a black sheep whose partygirl lifestyle has devolved into slacker alcoholism. After partying with her teenage co-workers from her grocery store, she’s about to get fired by her uptight new boss (Paul Campbell). Desperate for a lie to save her job, she claims to be pregnant. Word spreads quickly, and soon all of her friends want to hang again, her boss shows deeper interest in her life, she gets sympathy from strangers, her father shows renewed affection, and (best of all) her snotty little sister (Lisa Durupt) gets jealous. So Ruth decides to continue the lie to improve her life. With the help of a stoner janitor (Danny Trejo), she manages to keep the deception alive for several trimesters.
It’s a clever idea for a bad behavior comedy in the ‘Bad Santa’/’Bad Teacher’ mold (alternate title: ‘Bad Pregnancy’). As both an actress and screenwriter, Bennett delights in spinning society’s natural sympathy for pregnant women on its head. For those tired of baby obsessed culture, the laughs found here ring bitter and true. The movie is harsh without ever being mean, given that Bennett’s protagonist is never presented as a hero. Sure, she’s empathetically lost and charmingly cynical enough to be a joy to spend screen time with, but what she’s doing is never presented as anything less than wrong. That provides plenty of laughs and nervous tension.
The absurdity of the situation mounts gradually without ever slipping into ridiculous slapstick. Bennett and her director Jacob Tierney (‘The Trotsky’) wisely play things straight and deadpan. It’s oddly believable, even when the premise stretches into very wrong and gross areas. (A climatic scene involving red Jello leaking from a sensitive area really needs to be seen to be believed.)
The cast is also quite strong from top to bottom. Trejo and Caan pop up as character actor ringers to carry the comedy, and the fairly unknown Canadian cast all acquit themselves admirably without a single weak link in the chain. Since she wrote the film for herself, the movie is inevitably the Sonja Bennett show above all else. She’s excellent as a lost woman clinging to the variety of lies that she tells herself to get though the day before finally stumbling into a big lie that’ll spoil all her extended adolescent fun.
The major problem with the movie is that, by design, these sorts of bad behavior comedies have to become redemption stories. Despite all the cynically hilarious fun that the filmmakers enjoy reveling in during the first hour or so, punishment is required and life lessons must be learned. That dilutes the dark charms of the movie quite a bit once it just becomes another inspiring tale of personal growth and romantic comedy. Thankfully, that’s not so much a problem that it kills the movie. If anything, it makes the film far more accessible, just a little less special.
‘Preggoland’ succeeds above all else because it doesn’t try to be anything more than a twisted little anti-pregnancy comedy. Even when the big emotional arcs arrive, they’re handled delicately and stay within the movie’s specific realm of slightly augmented reality. The laughs are big and consistent with just enough edge. The performances are uniformly excellent. The visual style is pleasing without detracting from the character-focused storytelling. The script is strong and has bite despite its soft landing. (The final subverting image certainly helps.)
‘Preggoland’ is a minor comedy, but one with just enough harsh truth, bleak wit and earned emotional heft to work. This is one of those movies worth seeking out for the pleasant surprise, and hopefully it’ll get just enough attention for Sonja Bennett to serve double duty as a writer and actress again. She clearly has a unique voice and plenty of talent. Now let’s see if she’ll get a chance to keep flaunting those gifts.