What would you do if a simple lie could get you out of an uncomfortable situation with the people you love? That is the central dilemma in this terrific debut feature out of New Zealand, a deeply relatable tale of anxiety that never shies away from the hard truths its protagonist desperately trying to avoid. Confidently directed by MIFF Accelerator alum Michelle Savill, Millie Lies Low (2021) embraces its titular character’s resourcefulness and willingness to keep the narrative alive with a relentless, anxiety-inducing farce that will break your heart.
The film tracks architecture student Millie’s web of lies and schemes as a result of her leaving the New York-bound plane on the tarmac due to a panic attack. Instead of returning home to organise a new flight, the anxious Millie (Ana Scotney) decides to create a facade through Zoom and Instagram to her friends and family that she has indeed arrived in the Big Apple.
The film is acted wonderfully and with real compassion by the whole ensemble, with Scotney a real breakout as Millie. A truly compelling lead that buoys the entire story. Scotney fills every inch of the frame with her manic, cunning, and deeply human presentation of an anxiety-filled, self-destructive young person who is impossible not to relate to on some level. There is a level of care and empathy the film takes in showing Millie digging herself further into this hole.
Co-written by Savill and Eli Kent, the film has real compassion for all its characters that allows the film to never devolve into gawking at the cringeworthy situations. All of the supporting characters are just that, true supporters who only want the best for Millie.
Much in the mould of modern anxiety-cinema staples like Good Time (2017) and Eighth Grade (2018), Millie Lies Low propels its narrative with reckless abandon. Before you can even scream out to tell Millie to release herself from this prison she has made for herself, she is already being flung into the next desperate attempt to keep the facade going.
The narrative of Millie’s life is told with heartbreaking honesty, never giving us more than we need to work with scene to scene. Millie is a survivor who is capable of making quick decisions to continue on her path, even if they are detrimental to her in the long run.
There is a terrific sequence where Millie is walking through her friend’s party, the night she is meant to have landed in New York, with a poncho and motorbike helmet on. She is able to overhear her friends talking about her, filling her with more anxiety and pain. Millie is able to move through the party like a phantom, a ghost peering into the lives of her friends without their knowledge. This sequence gives us a window into the other characters of the film while still allowing Scotney to maintain a literal presence on screen for the entire film’s runtime.
Savill and cinematographer Andrew Stroud shoot Wellington in a truly cinematic way, with a clear inspiration stemming from the best of indie New York cinema. The New Zealand capital is captured by people who clearly adore the city, even within a narrative as heartbreaking as this one.
Unfortunately, the final act felt quite unbalanced in comparison to the energy of the first hour as the many spinning plates Savill and Kent have been managing begin to slow, with the narrative beginning to lean on tropes and flimsy choices that are glaring in contrast to the impressive tightness of its relentless opening.
These sorts of anxiety-inducing, propulsive solo pieces work best with a deeply subjective camera, where any moment without its lead can suck the energy out of the space. Thankfully, Millie Lies Low understands this and maintains Scotney’s white-knuckled grip on her audience for the entire runtime. We are never able to release ourselves from her story, just as she is never able to remove us from witnessing it.