How do comedians deal with PTSD? Typically, it’s to tell jokes to mask or subvert the trauma, but that doesn’t necessarily make the pain go away. I Used to Be Funny charts the journey of one woman used to making fun of her life as she grapples with a scarring event, unleashing a riveting and fantastic performance from Rachel Sennott, best known for comedies like Shiva Baby, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and another SXSW smash this year, Bottoms, who demonstrates just as much keen dramatic ability.
At the start of the story, Sam (Sennott) drops a cracker in the water while eating in the bathtub, which counts among the more effortful activities of her day. It’s unclear what it is that has specifically happened to leave her in this state, but it begins with her being hired as an au pair for Brooke (Olga Petsa), a twelve-year-old whose mother is dying and whose cop father Cameron (Jason Jones) desperately needs help. Two years later, things have devolved to the point of Brooke being reported missing after coming by Sam’s home to throw a rock through her window and angrily call her a liar.
What starts as repeated dialogue reverberating through Sam’s head turns into frequent flashbacks that drag her back into her past with little warning. It’s like a ricochet where Sam can’t stay grounded in her present because a triggering memory can pull her back at any moment. As a storytelling device, it helps to keep audiences firmly in Sam’s headspace, just as unable to escape the incessant callbacks to memories she would much rather forget. It’s disorienting to see Sam constantly clothed in different outfits and looking defeated seconds after she’s glowing with energy, but that’s the best way to comprehend just who Sam is and what she’s endured.
Sennott has already proven her comedic wit and her power to make audiences laugh, and here she shows that she’s exceptionally capable of bottling up the humor and not even leaning it on as a coping mechanism. Like the film, she shifts effortlessly between wisecracks and deep hurt. She does still default to jokes whenever the occasion presents itself, but it’s the moments where she can’t laugh her way out of a situation that sting and resonate the most. In her job interview, she dials up the humor, noting that she spends most of her time with overgrown children while performing at comedy clubs and expertly deflecting Cameron’s attempts to knock her profession down and relegate her career to a hobby.
Sam’s tactics are mirrored in the film as it probes the prevalence of toxic masculinity and the way in which female comedians are held to a different standard. When she meets Cameron’s cop buddies and they express that it must be hard to be a woman in comedy, she doesn’t miss a beat in her biting response that she just stands up on stage and they hand her a million dollars. She’s used to the world she lives in, and is fortunate to have the support of two hilariously self-deprecating roommates, Paige (Sabrina Jalees) and Philip (Caleb Hearon), who lean fully into their natures as fellow comedians and cradle Sam with crass and judgmental mockery that still comes from a place of love.
Writer-director Ally Pankiw makes an assured, resounding feature debut with extraordinary mastery of its tone. While at times it feels like it might begin to echo the delusional creativity of Search Party, it instead reins itself back in, delivering a product worthy of favorable comparisons to another female stand-up drama, All About Nina. In a phenomenal cast, Sennott is perfectly matched with a mature and layered performance from Petra, who portrays Brooke as someone who knows she’s a kid but can’t stand being coddled, even if she still has plenty of growing up to do. Jones effectively plays against type in a much more serious role than usual, and Ennis Esmer is a standout as Sam’s supportive boyfriend who can’t crack her newly hardened exterior. This film manages to be genuinely funny while simultaneously confronting hard-hitting subjects that are no laughing matter, fully and appropriately confident in the exceptionally delicate balance it manages to achieve.
This review is from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.