‘Cora Bora’ review: Megan Stalter is a captivating, comedic wrecking ball in Hannah Pearl Utt’s hilarious and poignant comedy | SXSW
The music that Cora (Megan Stalter) plays isn’t particularly pleasant on the ears. With lyrics like “get out of my house” and “dreams are stupid and so are we for believing in them,” Cora clears up any ambiguity for her cringing audience when she confirms “that song was about you guys” following her set. Cora is a blunt, dependably unruly protagonist who almost always chooses to say the wrong thing and make a situation worse. But she’s also a magnetic character who, as played by a phenomenal Stalter, makes Cora Bora an invigorating, hilarious delight.
Cora is trying to advance her music career by living in Los Angeles, bragging to people she meets at bars and parties that she outgrew her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She’s in an open relationship with her girlfriend Justine (Jojo T. Gibbs), but gets worried after struggling to reach her that she may have seriously fallen for someone else. So she proceeds to do what any sane person would and hop on a flight up to Portland to disrupt any newfound stability Justine or any of the people formerly in her life might have found in her absence.
Cora is a compulsive liar, and it’s difficult at times to discern if she even believes what she’s saying. Some of it is self-aggrandizing, mentioning all the gigs she’s getting (she’s not) and describing an afternoon hour at a cafe as a full-on show. She claims to be “bicoastal,” somehow arguing that Los Angeles and Portland can be described in that manner, and seems thoroughly out of touch with reality. As it turns out, there’s a reason she’s an asshole, one the film saves to reveal until most of the way through its run, but there’s a sense that, even when life was going great for her, she was the one in every room who said what people were only thinking and then doubled down on it for attention if she got called out for her callousness.
Stalter fully commands every moment of this film, earning a well-deserved promotion from comedy videos and a standout supporting role on HBO Max’s Hacks. At first it seems like Cora could be a mean version of Phoebe Buffay with an admittedly better voice, but Stalter dials up every thing about her to make her a captivating wrecking ball. Her comedic timing is excellent, and her delivery of lines like “Why does everyone keep asking what’s wrong with me?” reveals a mesmerizing delusion that she herself props up as she masks an inner vulnerability about how people perceive her.
Stalter is surrounded by a great ensemble that includes Gibbs, Ayden Mayeri as Justine’s new girlfriend Riley, who has little patience for Cora, and Manny Jacinto as Tom, a guy who just tries to be nice to Cora and finds himself repeatedly punished for his efforts. Director Hannah Pearl Utt and screenwriter Rhianon Jones deliver an incredibly entertaining film that, unlike its main character, is very self-aware, and knows how to smartly stretch a joke without overdoing it. Cora isn’t able to be serious even when the moment calls for it, and those flirtations with drama feel authentic and poignant despite her best attempts to fall back on her comedy.
While it may be difficult to truly like Cora, it’s easy to love Stalter, who proves enormously capable of carrying a film and elevating each moment. Whether it’s rationalizing that weed basically cures cancer and is essentially a vitamin or purposely getting Riley’s name wrong just to drive her crazy, Cora is so formidably detestable that it’s impossible not to be riveted by her. This film is full of nonstop laughs and even manages to extract some heartwarming drama out of all of it. This will surely not be the biggest role of Stalter’s career, but it is currently the best argument for her monumental talent.
This review is from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.