I Used To Be Funny

With her stand-up career not yet affording her financial stability, Sam (Rachel Sennott, "Shiva Baby," "Bottoms") takes additional work as an au pair for a 14 year-old whose mother is gravely ill in the hospital and whose policeman dad, Cameron (Jason Jones), is often at work, but when Brooke Renner (Olga Petsa) begins to appear on the news as a missing person, Sam goes into a depressive spiral in “I Used To Be Funny.”

Laura's Review: B

Writer/director Ally Pankiw (TV's 'The Great') makes her feature filmmaking debut with a mystery buffeted by a dual tale of trauma.  Pankiw introduces her characters in media res, teasing out background details before a cathartic climax that ties everything together with Sam finding her funny again.  Sennott is the most well known of an excellent ensemble cast, Sabrina Jalees and Caleb Hearon adding empathetic support as Sam’s queer roommates and fellow comics Paige and Philip, with Ennis Esmer as the loving boyfriend Noah Sam pushes away.

After Sam experiences a brief flashback of a young girl throwing a rock through her front door window (‘I just wanna know why you lied!’), her roomies pry Sam away from the local news, the fact that she’s in a towel apparently something to celebrate, a shower a step in the right direction of late.  Philip’s made dinner and Sam appears to slowly be coming out of a deep depression, but while Paige thinks she should let things go, Sam is obviously concerned about her former charge and so the two agree that she should file a police report about seeing Brooke and the broken window.

Pankiw seamlessly slips in and out of the present, using flashbacks to fill in the details we’ll be able to guess before all is revealed.  Brooke’s Aunt Jill (Dani Kind), her mother’s sister, was the person who introduced Sam into her brother-in-law and niece’s life, but Sam is resistant to working with her in the present, packing up her laptop and leaving a café after a brief conversation.

Sam arrived at a much grander home than one would expect of a Toronto policeman for an interview with Cameron and it is unorthodox, he taking a somewhat cynical interest in her comedy background but noting her connection with Brooke.  The flashbacks branch off, giving us both a perspective on life in Toronto comedy clubs and the easy friendship formed with Brooke, but a beer shared with Cameron’s cop buddies, all too eager to watch the YouTube videos Sam’s surprised to find her employer has seen, followed by the death of his wife, brings things to a combustible head.

Sennott, who I became aware of in a supporting role in the short-lived 2021 Kyra Sedgwick sitcom ‘Call Your Mother,” seems to have skyrocketed to fame since, two 2020 films, “Tahara” and “Shiva Baby,” releasing later.   This latest moves her out of the comedy realm despite her role as a comedienne, and we learn she has dramatic chops as well in this portrait of a victim trying to shield her young charge from the fallout.  Petsa holds her own as the girl understandably reading the whole as betrayal, lashing out in rebellion.  Pankiw’s production makes use of varied locations around Toronto, but it is how she utilizes the various communities within those spaces – comics, roommates, police brotherhoods and extended families – all crisscrossing within her non-linear plot, which impresses the most.  We only wish Noah, Esmer’s perfect boyfriend, enjoyed a better outcome.

Robin's Review: B-

Sam (Rachel Sennott) was an up-and-comer on the comedy stage until tragedy, and PTSD, forced her to quit, She takes a job as a companion and mentor for teenage Brooke (Olga Petsa). Then, the girl disappears and Sam is committed to find her in “I Used to Be Funny.”

In her writing and directing debut, Ally Pankiw and her star Rachel Sennott create a character study of sorrow, hope, personal pain and passion. Sam has always loved her chosen craft and was proving to be good at it. Then, things fell apart and she had trouble dealing with it all.

She takes the job working for Brooke’s parents and a deep, bonding relationship begins between her and the girl. This is where the use of flash back and forward crosses a bridge too far as the reason for Brooke’s disappearance comes to light. That reason comes in dribs and drabs and caused me some confusion as it dealt with abuse is an ambiguous way.

The film belongs, though, to Rachel Sennott’s effective performance as a woman struggling with crisis and her own PTSD. She gives a performance of vulnerability and strength that builds the character into a three dimensional person just trying to make it through life.

Utopia released "I Used To Be Funny" in select theaters on 6/7/24, expanding on 6/14/24.  It begins streaming on 6/18/24.