By Lynn Venhaus
One of the best surprises of the current year in film, “Palm Springs” is an inventive, genial romantic comedy with an edge. (Warning frank sexual dialogue and content).

Nyles (Andy Samberg) is with his girlfriend at a wedding in Palm Springs when he meets Sarah (Cristin Milioti), the reluctant maid of honor forced to be at her sister’s wedding. She’s the family black sheep and a skeptic when it comes to true romance but is drawn to Nyles’ wacky sense of humor and darkly comic nihilism.

Like “Groundhog Day,” Nyles is sucked into a surreal time-space continuum, repeating this same date. He warned her not to follow him into a cave…

Written and directed by first-timers – a remarkable combination of director Max Barbakow and writer Andy Siara, it builds on the time-travel concept in a manner like “Groundhog Day” but does not follow the same trajectory.

The wedding setting is inspired and fertile ground for comedy – what with family dynamics, quirky relatives, young adults with a lot of baggage already and always people with secrets, combined with the time-honored rituals of American nuptials and receptions. I mean, it is comedy gold, and you have someone who is a zen master at it, Andy Samberg.

Christin Milioti and Andy Samberg in “Palm Springs”

I always enjoyed the goofy Samberg as an off-kilter presence on “Saturday Night Live” from 2005 to 2012, his digital shorts and his clever work with Lonely Island. Although the 2016 comedy “Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping” is highly underrated, I never considered his acting on the same level as breakouts Bill Hader and Kate McKinnon, but he is terrific here. He is just the right blend of world-weary and devil-may-care. He also proves to be a suitable romantic lead – who knew? – and his offbeat pairing with Cristin Milioti, also not your typical romantic interest — even though she was the “Mother” in “How I Met Your Mother” (Spoiler alert for a TV show that ended in 2014), energizes the movie.

Samberg’s wacky charm is his strength, so you go with the premise, even when all time-travel segments have plot holes – but don’t dwell on that. Just enjoy. 

Milioti, a Tony nominee as the immigrant who falls for the broke Irish musician in “Once” the Broadway musical, is such a good actress, capable of expressing the gamut of emotions her character goes through. You root for this couple, who have such a blast together dealing with the gimmick.

Look for the movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, to be considered for this season’s awards — it’s that sharp and witty.

It also benefits from such pros as Peter Gallagher as father of the bride, J.K. Simmons as a wedding guest, Tyler Hoechlin as the compromised groom and a brief appearance by June Squibb as Nana, always delightful.

Fresh and fun, “Palm Springs” is a tidy 90-minute ride full of humor, unexpected turns and sweetness.

“Palm Springs” is a romantic comedy not rated that is 90 minutes long. It is directed by Max Barbakow, written by Andy Siara, and stars Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Tyler Hoechlin and June Squibb. It is streaming on Hulu, beginning July 10.

By Lynn Venhaus

Teen politics take on a more sinister edge in “Selah and the Spades,” especially when the stakes are high at a prestigious prep school.

Five factions rule an elite Pennsylvania boarding school, Haldwell. Selah Summers (Lovie Simone), 17, is the head cheerleader and golden girl who runs the dominant group, The Spades, supplying drugs and alcohol to the students. In an effort to maintain control when tensions escalate between the cliques, Selah takes on a protégé, photographer Paloma Davis (Celeste O’Connor), who is a sophomore and turns out to be a quick study.

So can Selah hold on to her power, even when she has a falling out with her best friend Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome)? Senior year proves to be intense, frustrating and not definitive at all. And these kids, in a different league, seems to operate as mob families.

First-time writer-director Tayarisha Poe uses a stylized, polished approach to present a heightened reality, and it is rather frightening how ugly everyone is on the inside while being consumed by outward appearances. And if this is the way the modern high school social cliques scene is, be afraid, be very afraid.

No matter what the status is, rich or poor, why do most high school kids feel they have to be somebody else and not themselves?

Poe has some good points here, but it’s mostly posturing. Most of the action is depicted after-school and underground, rarely any classroom time. The administration just seems to shake its heads at the antics and not have a grasp at all. Most of the kids are snooty mean girls and boys, so who do we root for? The poor, shy kid on scholarship who doesn’t realize her power, but when she does, it’s intoxicating?

That would be newcomer Paloma, and Celeste O’Connor is indeed a breakout here. As the lead girl, Lovie Simone impresses but Selah is too cold and calculating to elicit any feel-sorry emotions from the audience, let alone identify. She is obsessed with maintaining control and spends much of her energy trying to keep her power.

The power struggles aren’t all that interesting (and the head “Bobby” will get on your last nerve). The amount of drugs casually consumed is rather alarming too. But before I start sounding like a crabby old woman who didn’t hang out with the cool kids at the malt shop, this movie is hard to warm up to, let along relate. Its connection to reality is limited – OK, maybe the depiction of high school is legitimate but doesn’t ring true, or I could be incredibly naïve.

However, you do want something good to happen, especially with Jharrel Jerome as the best friend. Jerome, Emmy winner for his performance in “When They See Us,” a Netflix mini-series on the Central Park Five case, is an outstanding performer, destined for good work. He played Kevin as a teenager in “Moonlight” and is a terrific presence here.

For as much as this movie is about growing up, Selah never really grows and the ending is a muddled mess (and way too dark). This movie premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, so it has sat awhile. Yet, the director was tagged as someone to watch. She does show promise, as does the cast, but it never does rise to that special level people would be expecting and it could have achieved.

And that is very much like high school.

“Selah and the Spades” is a drama written and directed by Tayarisha Poe, starring Lovie Simone, Jharrel Jerome and Celeste O’Connor. It’s rated R for teen drug content and language. Run-time is 1 hr. 37 min. Lynn’s Grade: C+

By Lynn Venhaus
A quietly devastating film without a false move, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will permeate your psyche and stay there. Its documentary-like realism gives this unassuming film power as it sneaks up on viewers like a velvet hammer.

A familiar tale of young blue-collar girls stuck in a rut in a dead-end town is not ordinary at all. Because of an unintended pregnancy, these rural Pennsylvania teens (Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder) travel to New York City to seek medical help. Writer-director Eliza Hittman has located the sweet spot between fine young talent and a non-conventional storytelling method.

Winner of a special U.S. Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival for neorealism, the film also won the Grand Jury Prix (Silver Berlin Bear) at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Truly Moving Picture Award at the Heartland Film Festival this year.

Repressed and sad, Autumn, 17, channels her emotions into her love of music but rarely acts up or out in public. With a dismal family life and jerky high school boys certainly no prize catches in this hopeless rust belt hamlet, she has the look of defeat before she even embarks on a life. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan’s face telegraphs everything she doesn’t say – and it’s a mesmerizing standout debut.

What isn’t said is more gut-wrenching than the sparse dialogue that lets us know just enough information. Clearly Autumn’s hiding a secret. After her pregnancy is confirmed, we never know who the father is but there are two obvious suspects, and whoa, she’s left with little choice and no support. She would need parental permission in Pennsylvania for a procedure. Her mother is remarried to a real creep and has two young children to care for, so it’s complicated.

I am not going to get into a moral debate about abortion, nor make any judgments, but Autumn’s hopeless circumstances lead her to travel to the unfamiliar and intimidating NYC on the train with her loyal cousin Skylar. As a fellow store clerk, Talia Ryder demonstrates why she is such a resourceful, smart and bold girl. They may be small-town rubes but what bravery is displayed as they seek the necessary help. We should all be so lucky to have someone like Skylar to count on in a very cold cruel world.

In the movie’s keynote scene, a frightened Autumn must answer a medical questionnaire with either “never, rarely, sometimes or always.” Showing a masterful control beyond her years, Flanagan’s responses may answer your questions and influence your assumptions.

It’s also disturbing, and you feel the desperation. Neither girl can afford to be vulnerable, and as they navigate a stacked-deck existence, it’s unsettling to see how casual sexual harassment and predatory behavior is in their world. These girls have learned early on how to navigate around these typical toxic males. But for how long?

The film takes place over a short time frame but makes a lasting impact. You just want to scream “Run like the wind” to them and hope they land on their feet somewhere, anywhere but there. And female friendship is a potent tool in anyone’s life.

Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder are impressive in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a drama, 141 minutes, rated PG-13 for disturbing/mature thematic content, language, some sexual references and teen drinking. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Note: This film is available on demand and on streaming services

Webster-Kirkwood Times published a version of this review as well.