There’s a brief, smile-inducing montage early in “My Art” that sees the lead character Ellie — an artist played by an artist, Laurie Simmons, who also wrote and directed — arriving at the grand upstate New York country house where she’s housesitting for the summer, and throwing open its many doors. Because when you work in the city all year teaching, and you’ve successfully escaped (in this case to focus on your own work), you’re in the mood for possibilities, for fresh air. Ellie’s door-flinging is her way of letting her art-making process know she’s ready for business.
But opening yourself to creation in a new environment invariably involves adapting to the surroundings — namely, other people — and this is the real beating heart behind Simmons’ movie. It’s a quiet, eccentric comedy-drama about artistic inspiration that won’t knock your socks off, but it has its own awkward charms about how artists forge their identity while wrestling with professional boundaries.
Simmons is an internationally known artist with work in the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney, which is the setting of an opening credit sequence that shows Ellie wandering through an exhibit of others’ work. But Simmons is also recognized as Lena Dunham’s mother, both in real life and onscreen in Dunham’s feature filmmaking debut “Tiny Furniture.” Dunham said that film was inspired by her mom’s work with photographed miniatures, as well as by the complications of growing up with a coolly famous art-world parent. (Simmons’ unforced performance had a naturalistic mix of the tetchy and tender.)
So it’s with the most maternal of return favors/jabs that Simmons efficiently establishes Ellie’s sidelined 60-something female artist by casting her daughter as a former student of Ellie’s, now a sought-after gallery mainstay whose every collegial word and privileged whine to the ex-teacher she’s surpassed smacks of unintended condescension. It’s as if Simmons is saying, with a promisingly delicate wit, See? I too can blur the lines of our public personae.
But Ellie, also shown early on throwing an end-of-school-year pizza bash for her students, isn’t a pity-party role. When she picks up a digital Bolex camera from a more successful peer and friend (Blair Brown), the vibe isn’t jealousy, but of a sisterhood born of being clear-eyed about the vagaries of stardom, happy to be inspired, and joyful to help one another.
Motivated by themes of “memory, longing and nostalgia,” Ellie, with her dog companion Bing in tow, settles in to her vacationing friend’s rural digs and creates a barn loft workshop for recreating scenes from Hollywood movies against projected backdrops. But as she meets locals — most prominently the estate’s gardener Frank (Robert Clohessy, “Blue Bloods”), a widower who once had acting dreams, and John (John Rothman, “One Mississippi”), a divorced lawyer and stepdad to one of her students — she incorporates these curious, accommodating, wannabe suitors into her costumed playacting.
What began as Ellie solo-vamping in a sparkly tuxedo as Marlene Dietrich from “Morocco,” segues to playing Marilyn Monroe opposite Frank’s Clark Gable in “The Misfits,” and the silent younger mermaid to John’s William Powell in “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid.”
The sense is of a kind of eternal playtime in which femininity, masculinity, art, age, desire, and the impossibility of ideals are in constant motion, and the bucolic environment (attractively featured by cinematographer Tom Richmond, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) is a grand dressing room not unlike the setting of a leafy, lazy farce. Though her dialogue and directing of actors can tend toward declarative stiltedness, Simmons has an evident romantic touch about the fusion of creating and camaraderie.
She’s also better stirring the pot with her central triangle of Ellie, Frank and Tom — re-enacting “Jules et Jim” leads this trio to an argument about gender roles — than she is finding thematically humorous resonance in a quirky married couple played by Josh Safdie and Parker Posey, whose energy is welcome if ineffectively used.
Ellie’s adorable dog Bing, meanwhile, who suffers from a disease that affects his mobility, offers up a different kind of sentimental metaphor for the toil of artists like Ellie: front legs with purpose, back legs that struggle, but nothing that stops the forward momentum. And if you’re lucky, others in your orbit might pick you up occasionally.
Eventually, Ellie’s summer concludes on a note of professional triumph, but also sadness, and something invariably bittersweet about how artists see and use the world around them. In that respect, Simmons’ love letter to her calling creates its own modest safe space for understanding the distinctive contours of women making art.
Since Hollywood features so prominently in Ellie’s work, it’s appropriate to consider “My Art” as it relates to famous movies about artists. If one extreme is the testosterone-fueled, genius-deification model represented by the florid Kirk Douglas-as-Van Gogh biopic “Lust for Life,” maybe one way to appreciate Simmons’s stumblingly affectionate ode to the day-in, day-out of creation is to call it “Lust for Process.”