Millie Lies Low
There's nothing false about this astute and hilarious NZ comedy about faking it till you make it in a social media-ruled world — or about Ana Scotney's exceptional performance.
September 29, 2022
A scene-stealer in 2018's The Breaker Upperers, Ana Scotney now leads the show in Millie Lies Low. She's just as magnetic. The New Zealand actor comes to the part via Wellington Paranormal, Shortland Street, Educators and Cousins — and the film first debuted at festivals before her role in God's Favourite Idiot — but it's an exceptional calling card. It isn't easy playing someone so committed to making such utterly questionable choices, yet remaining so charmingly relatable; however, that's Scotney's remit and achievement in this canny, savvy and amusing comedy. It also isn't easy to pull off the timing needed to highlight the hilarious side of Millie's hijinks, while ensuring that her woes, hopes and everything that's led her to lie low but lie about living it up remain understandable; consider her entire portrayal a masterclass in just that.
Scotney plays the film's eponymous Wellington university student, who panics aboard a plane bound for New York — where a prestigious architecture internship awaits — and has to disembark before her flight leaves. She says she isn't anxious. She also says it isn't an attack. And by the time she realises what she's done, she's alone in the airport, the aircraft has departed and her own face beams down at her from a digital billboard. Even getting that Big Apple opportunity had made her the toast of the town, and huge things were meant to await, hence the ads and publicity. Now, a new ticket costs $2000, which Millie doesn't have. Admitting that she hasn't gone at all — to her family, friends, teachers, school and the NZ capital at large — wouldn't cost her a thing, but it's a price she isn't willing to pay.
First, Millie endeavours to rustle up the cash from her best friend and classmate (Jillian Nguyen, Hungry Ghosts), and then her mother (Rachel House, Heartbreak High). Next, she hits up a quick-loan business (run by Cohen Holloway, The Power of the Dog) but is still left empty-handed. Millie's only solution, other than admitting the situation and facing the fallout: faking it till she makes it. As she searches for other ways to stump up the funds, she hides out in her hometown, telling everyone that she's actually already in NYC. To support her ruse, she posts elaborate faux Instagram snaps MacGyvered out of whatever she can find (big sacks of flour standing in for snow, for instance) and scours for every possible spot, building feature and poster that can even slightly double for New York.
There's a caper vibe to Millie's efforts skulking around Wellington while attempting to finance the ticket to her apparent dreams. Sometimes, she's holed up in a tent in her mum's backyard. Sometimes, she's putting on a disguise and showing up at parties in her old flat — eavesdropping on what her mates are saying in her absence, and spying on the boyfriend (Chris Alosio, Troppo) she's meant to be on a break from. While she's doing the latter, she's also reclaiming the car she sold pre-trip to use as loan collateral, because she's that determined to get to America and leave her nearest and dearest none the wiser. Making her feature debut, director and co-writer Michelle Savill has more than just a laugh and a lark in her sights, though, as entertaining as Millie Lies Low's namesake's antics are. There's a caper vibe to the picture of Millie's supposedly perfect existence that she's trying to push upon herself as much as her loved ones as well, like she's selling herself on an unwanted fantasy.
Millie mightn't be sure whether the internship is truly her heart's desire, but she's sure that she doesn't deserve it or the fanfare that's come her way with it. Accordingly, Savill has imposter syndrome and the shame spiral it sparks in her gaze, too, and finds much to mine in both an insightful and darkly funny manner. As she follows her protagonist between episodic efforts to print the legend — or post it one Insta picture at a time — her keenly observed film also treads in the perennially great (and relevant) Frances Ha's footsteps. Both movies examine the self-destructive life choices of a twentysomething with a clear idea of what she wants everyone to think of her, but with far less of a grasp on who she really is herself and what she genuinely needs.
Some framing and music choices make the connection between Noah Baumbach's Greta Gerwing-starring 2012 masterpiece and Millie Lies Low obvious, but this astute delight is never merely a Wellington-set copy of that fittingly NYC-set feature. Tapping into the reality that no one ever feels like a real adult, let alone a real person, is fuel enough for thousands of movies — and Savill's always has its own mood, thoughts and strengths, including in its interrogation of social media. It doesn't come as news that broadcasting a seemingly idyllic version of your life to everyone you know, and don't, creates pressure to maintain that facade. It isn't a revelation that that's what Facebook, Instagram and the like have inspired to begin with, either. Millie navigates a heightened version of a daily truth for many, and Millie Lies Low does what comedic exaggeration is meant to, acting like a mirror and a magnifying glass.
Whether you're a Wellington local or not — or you've visited, or haven't — you can sense the city around Scotney as she flits around; Savill's direction, and Andrew Stroud's (The Changeover) cinematography along with it, has a lived-in look and atmosphere. It feels tangible, too, as do the many shrewd character details and bits of backstory layered through Savill and Eli Kent's (Coming Home in the Dark) script. Nothing about the film would work even half as well if Millie felt artificial, unsurprisingly. Scotney's magnificent performance is crucial, yes, but so is the fleshed-out material she's working with. Millie Lies Low also operates as a cringe comedy, and proves just as textured and relatable as viewers wince and squirm at its central figure's decisions. We cower and recoil — and chuckle — because we can spot the gap between the options that Millie takes and the better alternatives, and because there's nothing pretend about how accurate her fakery feels.