Written by: Robin C. Farrell | September 16th, 2021
Best Sellers (Lina Roessler, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
The trailer for Best Sellers features a fast-paced edit with rousing rock-and-roll backtrack and several of the most comedic and wacky moments from the film. However, the stakes run much deeper than one might expect. Lina Roessler’s directorial feature debut presents a slow-burn journey of material, emotional, and physical struggle for her two leads, Lucy (Aubrey Plaza, Black Bear) and Harris (Michael Caine, Twist). This is not a quirky, off-beat dark comedy, but a wistful and often heavy-hearted tale of pride, purpose, and family legacy.
At the start of the film, Lucy Stanbridge has released yet another flop of a novel from her father’s publishing company, which has yet to see real success since Lucy took it over. Desperate for anything to help save the company, along with her career and her family’s honor. She discovers that Harris Shaw, a once-renowned author from many years prior, owes her company a book. Despite Shaw’s descent into isolation and reclusive behavior, out of desperation (details not made fully clear until much later) he hands over a manuscript and agrees to a book tour in lieu of allowing Lucy to make any publishing edits. Despite Lucy’s best efforts, and as a direct result of Harris’ refusal to engage in promotion, the book doesn’t sell. The two characters orbit each other, facing off, each unrelenting and growing steadily more sick of one another.
The emotional experience is as dingy as the dive bars featured throughout the book tour. Shaw’s wild-card moments read not as comical or even cringey, but genuinely nerve-wracking on Lucy’s behalf. At times, their expedition veers close to feeling like a slog; the stakes grow only more dire for both parties as Caine plays Shaw’s deteriorating health with palpable physicality and Lucy’s circumstance is intrinsically relatable; fighting to bear the responsibility of her father’s business and to keep it from falling apart, no matter the cost, while deteriorating in her own way. Though she isn’t the most likable or adept character, Lucy’s determination entices you to root for her anyway.
Believable though the slow pace may be, the first half of the story is spent hoping Lucy and Shaw will eventually team up and bond. They must, eventually, right? Yes, but by the time things finally start to look up for everyone—including Lucy’s assistant, Rachel, played with tremendous panache by Ellen Wong (Film Fest)—it’s almost at the end. Plus, not long after that, another wrench gets thrown into the mix that upends all the good that’s finally started to pay off. It all works, but in the interest of a melancholy and pensive conclusion. Best Sellers absolutely succeeds in making you care about the characters and evoking an emotional response from the piece at large, but if you expect to go into this film laughing, you’ll probably wind up misty-eyed, instead.