There are many reasons Jenny Slate is a distinctive performer — her voice, her balance of liveliness and calm — but one of her more practical gifts onscreen is that she nails millennial professional anxiety, acting in the registers between deference, exhaustion and indifference. In the travelogue drama “The Sunlit Night,” she plays Frances, an artist who takes on a summer apprenticeship in remote Norway.
The film begins with a critique of Frances’s paintings; her work is deemed cold and impersonal, like hotel art. Seeking an escape, Frances finds a gig and a kindred spirit with Nils (Fridtjov Saheim), an established artist who has plans to paint himself out of a dry spell by completing a barn for an art institute in Norway. As Frances labors on Nils’s project, she ponders her own paintings and pursues muses that might deepen her disengaged work.
This movie about artistic inspiration is meandering and slight, but, in a way, it provides evidence for why it’s helpful to cast actors with movie-star charisma. Without needing to worry about why the story follows Frances — it follows her because she’s played by Jenny Slate — it’s easier to pick up on the movie’s pleasant qualities.
“The Sunlit Night” has a vibrant sense of color and a beautiful setting, and the director David Wnendt takes care to curate genuinely interesting pieces for his characters to paint. If anything, the film would benefit from more time spent on the simple strokes of brushes over canvas and wood. Instead, it eschews philosophical observations about art for quick, somewhat hacky references to Mondrian and Caravaggio. Despite Slate’s capable performance, the movie is only postcard-friendly, not an artistic awakening.