There’s nothing quite like a late-Summer surprise. The period between late-August and mid-October is something of a liminal cinematic period, where studios, still riding the highs and lows of the blockbuster months that preceded it, are gearing up for their fall and winter awards push. What’s released between those weeks is often…fine. They’re the movies that wouldn’t make a dent in the mid-Summer box office and wouldn’t move the needle in the midst of awards season. Occasionally, however, they have a trick up their sleeves.
A Simple Favor is as delightful a surprise as has come in some time. Director Paul Feig’s riff on the thriller-mystery, which he packs with his brand of levity and humor, is an intoxicating cocktail to which you can’t help but succumb. Based on the beach read novel of the same name by author Darcey Bell, A Simple Favor is a charming twist on the familiar, and Feig’s best movie to date.
Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a stay-at-home mommy with a fledgling vlog. A widow, she does her best to stay supportive of her elementary school aged son, Miles (Joshua Satine), often annoying the other parents with her gung ho enthusiasm. Soon she meets the enigmatic Emily (Blake Lively), a high-powered PR executive and polar opposite of Stephanie. She drinks, she smokes, she curses, she fucks. The two forge a fast, if unlikely, friendship that opens Stephanie’s world. Soon, however, Emily goes missing, and Stephanie finds a new path as she attempts to solve the mystery of her friend’s disappearance.
The core plot unfolds much like any of the countless thrillers that have been released over the last decade, but Feig, along with screenwriter Jessica Sharzer, deftly push this to an almost secondary focus and zero, instead, in on Stephanie’s development as a strong, independent woman. The mystery becomes the mechanism for her growth, and her self-empowerment is the journey we’re actually on.
Even the mystery, however, is full of twists—some surprising, some not—and tense moments. Feig displays a mastery at knowing when to let the shock stand out, and when it does it’s often more shocking due to the fact that, by then, you’ve kind of forgotten you’re watching a mystery. It’s not easy to pull off the stop-on-a-dime moments that Feig has prepared here, and the result is more than a few moments of gasps as the plot quickly turns.
Kendrick and Lively make a fantastic pair; their chemistry creates a hurricane of charisma that pulls you in and captivates you. Theirs is an odd coupling—Stephanie as the goody-two-shoes and Emily as the unrelenting badass—and both actresses create fantastic performances that elevate their characters beyond the tropey dimensions with which they’re written. Even as the script gets somewhat predictable, Kendrick and Lively are a delight to watch.
Though it could be said that A Simple Favor doesn’t exactly do anything new, it’s so good at what it does that it doesn’t really matter. Feig—alongside Sharzer, Kendrick, and Lively—has weaved an enchanting spell that will bowl over even the most jaded of watchers. It is, unexpectedly, one of the best movies of the summer and one of the better movies of the year.
A Simple Favor is now playing in theaters everywhere.