‘A Little White Lie’ Review: Michael Shannon Fudges the Truth in Literary Dramedy
Come on, admit it. You’ve told a tiny nontruth before in order to boost yourself up. It’s likely harmless and not something that anyone would even notice. Unless, of course, you are pretending to be somebody you most definitely are not. That’s the premise that binds together A Little White Lie, a lovable literary dramedy about an unassuming man’s reluctant decision to claim to be a famously reclusive author. Did somebody say identity crisis?
Written and directed by writer-director Michael Maren and based on Chris Belden’s 2013 novel Shriver, A Little White Lie follows Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson), the program director and professor for the English department at Acheron University. The 92nd annual literary festival is around the corner and Simone knows it. In addition to her annual excitement surrounding this event, she’s also feeling immense pressure from her boss (Kate Linder) who is this close to pulling the plug on the whole thing unless Simone is able to miraculously pull off a guest that would generate a turnout that would justify all of the work and money that goes into the festival. Luckily, she secured a last-minute response from the last person that anyone thought would ever respond. “Who’s the writer that went MIA—vanished—for 20 years after the publication of his masterpiece?” Simone asks. None other than the enigmatic C. R. Shriver.
Now, Simone got a response from a Shriver, but not the Shriver. The invite ended up in the mailbox of a self-loathing handyman with the same name, played by Michael Shannon. Shriver’s initial response is understandable confusion, as he is the furthest thing from a literary genius. He’s a down-on-his-luck fellow who spends his time in the liquor store, not the library. Clearly, this was some sort of mix-up, and he was prepared to ignore it or tell them they had the wrong guy. But with the encouragement of his wacky friend Lenny (Mark Boone Junior), they respond to the letter and accept the prestigious invite pretending to be this infamous genius C.R. Shriver. What could possibly go wrong?
Shannon delivers a strong, subdued performance that relies on body language in the quiet moments. It is a tricky task for a performer that he manages to pull off with ease. So much pain and suffering is conveyed through a simple twitch of the eyebrows or a pensive stare, which are both things this character relies on. This is quite a sharp contrast from Shannon’s recent turn as country music legend George Jones in George & Tammy. He plays mumbly, confused, and socially awkward very well, and wears an uncomfortable “I don’t know what I’m doing” expression from start to finish. This could get old fast depending on who plays the part, but fortunately for us, it is Shannon who just feels so organic.
The majority of the movie centers on Shriver acclimating to the small-town fame, which typically involves him fending off fans who try to slip him their manuscript. In the process, we’re learning about who the real Shriver is at the same time that Shannon’s Shriver is too. An effective and refreshing element of the story is how tense and vulnerable he continues to be even as he becomes a local, respected celebrity. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to make some money and really sell this faux identity, he’s incredibly shy and guilty about getting praised for something he didn’t write. The fear and judgment Shriver has for himself occasionally takes the form of a smug, condescending vision of himself that he typically sees when he’s had a few too many drinks. Shriver’s presence is meant to keep the festival afloat when, ironically, he can sometimes only barely stand upright.
A Little White Lie, like Shannon’s Shriver, has a bit of an identity crisis of its own. The opening scene in the English department gives the impression that this would be Kate Hudson’s movie, though it quickly seems to switch lanes and follow Shannon’s lead. Hudson’s determined and professionally frustrated Simone is someone you instantly want to root for and can likely relate to the most. She’s surrounded by a sea of uptight writers who spend more time telling you that they are writers than they do actually writing. Hudson fits this role perfectly, bringing the right amount of charm, drive, and optimism required for a character who is grappling with their reality while also holding onto their dreams. Even though Simone was certainly a pivotal, main character at the start, she still felt like she was underused. Regardless, Hudson shines and reclaimed the movie every time she was on-screen.
The plot fumbles slightly in the second half with a murder investigation and the appearance of the supposedly real Shriver (Zach Braff). Those two elements, plus the teased romance and a late-in-the-game reveal, tangle up the previously established storylines a bit. The eclectic cast of characters that were introduced early on helped contribute to the movie’s mostly playful tone. Don Johnson plays the professor and failed writer T. Wasserman who has unearned bravado. He’s the type of person who will throw around some quotes by Lord Byron and Walt Whitman just to remind everyone that he is to be taken seriously. He’s the worst.
Wendie Malick plays wealthy benefactor Dr. Bedrosian who has a sexual appetite exclusively for writers, the more mysterious the better. Small but consistently standout performances were played by Romy Byrne and Only Murders in the Building and The Lost City star Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Byrne’s teacher assistant character Teresa is a cool voice of reason and a go-getter, and Randolph nails the role of an eager fan who quickly gets way too comfortable with a celebrity.
This film tackles a lot of interesting themes. It explores the important journey of self-doubt to self-acceptance and the strange ways we sometimes blindly listen to and accept things celebrities say as gospel because they are, well, celebrities. Despite being a bit tonally uneven, A Little White Lie is a lovable indie dramedy led by the always delightful Michael Shannon and Kate Hudson that is worth bookmarking.
A Little White Lie is now in theaters and on VOD.