SXSW Film Review: I Used To Be Funny

Healing drama uses its laughs as therapy

There’s a specific kind of numbed pain that comes from the isolation that sexual assault and harassment can make one feel. It’s the struggle to not feel like a victim in your own skin, to interreact with the same people you laughed with before, and to not feel totally broken and hopeless in your every day.

That scattered struggle is difficult to resonate on film without drowning in sorrow, but the tonal balance of I Used to Be Funny is thoughtful, folding in laughs with serious subject matter that never at any point feels manipulative or punishing, but rather relatable and therapeutic.

In the SXSW-selcted film, Rachel Sennott is Sam, an au pair by day and a standup comedian at night. She’s hired by a family to take care of Brooke (Olga Pesta), a twelve-year-old girl whose mother is in the hospital. Between being hired and the present day of the film, Sam is no longer performing standup due to an incident that has left her lost in her own thoughts, shut down and disconnected from the things that used to make her feel like herself. To make matters more complicated, Brooke has gone missing, which fills Sam with a flood of feelings and memories that she begins to drown in.

I Used to Be Funny bubbles like a panic attack slowly rising to the surface, interlacing the past and present that gives space to process Sam’s feelings along with her. The performance by Sennott (pulling double duty here with SXSW headliner Bottoms) is heartbreaking, a tight rope walk between funny and sad that’s done gracefully. There’s a scene towards the start of the film that particularly resonates, where Sam is lingering backstage at a comedy club watching her roommates perform when a man comes up to her and says she can now joke about anything in the wake of her tragedy. Sennott’s tight smile, her disassociation, are all familiar, and Ally Pankiw’s direction fully encompasses the total loneliness Sam feels in the moment, being forced to remember her pain in front of everyone.

Healing is not linear, and I Used to Be Funny adeptly displays that process, exploring Sam’s pain without making the experience of watching the film painful, and honestly refreshing exploration of a subject that’s so often brutal to witness.

I Used To Be Funny

Narrative Feature Competition, World Premiere

Wed 15, 11am, Rollins Theatre at The Long Center
Fri 17, 3:30pm, Alamo Lamar A

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