nowhere inn
Sundance Institute
Sundance Institute

'The Nowhere Inn' Is a Meta Film That Questions What We Really Want from Celebrities

Before settling in to see The Nowhere Inn, I quizzed the film's publicist about working with its lead, the indie rock star St. Vincent. What's she like? I wanted to know. Is she cool and aloof like her stage presence indicates? Or is she a secret sweetheart? 

My question, it turned out, is sort of the point of The Nowhere Inn. St. Vincent, AKA Annie Clark, made a film with her close friend Carrie Brownstein, star of Portlandia and guitarist/singer for pioneering band Sleater-Kinney, about making a film about St. Vincent. If this sounds like a celebrity vanity project that makes your head ache, well: It is and it isn't. It's an interrogation of celebrity vanity projects while also offering up the same nuggets we crave from celebrity vanity projects: performance footage, quote-unquote intimate moments. It's also weird and trippy and beautiful and often very, very funny. 

The Nowhere Inn is very much a scripted project, written by Clark and Brownstein and directed by Portlandia alum Bill Benz, but it takes the shape of a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a documentary about Clark and her alter ego St. Vincent. The concept is that Brownstein -- who I will henceforth refer to as Carrie or CB to distinguish between the real person and her fictionalized avatar -- sets out to put her friend's life to film, hopefully ending up with something like Lady Gaga's Five Foot Two or Taylor Swift's Miss Americana, the latter of which is another movie premiering at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The only problem is that Annie is actually pretty boring when she's not decked out in latex and shredding at concerts. 

Her bandmates are at a loss to define anything "interesting" about her, save for her music and love of radishes. She plays Scrabble on her tour bus after shows. She works out regularly, eats healthily, and appears to be a genuinely kind, down-to-earth person. According to Carrie, she doesn't really make for an interesting documentary.

For the first half or so of the movie, Brownstein is the one who seems to be playing a caricature. Carrie -- or "CB," as Annie affectionately calls her -- is an insecure director, craving something scandalous that's just not there when dealing with the "real" Annie. But slowly the dynamic starts to shift. As Annie starts to transform herself into the St. Vincent people expect -- dramatic, sexual, untouchable -- she becomes more of a cartoon of a rock star, while Carrie starts to show the humanity she was previously lacking. Along the way, action descends into surrealism, forcing the audience to question who (or what) is in control. 

It's not as if the self-indulgent music documentary hasn't been parodied before in the likes of This Is Spinal Tap or, more recently, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. But those movies -- both genius in their own right -- take aim at celebrity narcissism. The Nowhere Inn doesn't totally ignore that, but it's not its main concern. Instead, it's asking what is interesting at all in the context of celebrity. Is someone's art enough? Or do we need someone's offstage or offscreen life to be as scintillating as their performances? Can someone ever really paint a portrait of a famous person that is not in some way shaped by that famous person herself? Will a star's "real life" persona -- as in, who they really are -- ever be enough? The Nowhere Inn doesn't answer all the questions it poses, but it does introduce them playfully, in a way that keeps you guessing as to where this is all really going as it descends into madness. 

Either consciously or not, The Nowhere Inn is catnip for fans of St. Vincent. You get to see her parade around in extraordinary looks by Natalie O'Brien and canoodle in lingerie with an internet beloved actress. But chances are you also want what Carrie rejects: the moments of relatability, where Annie Clark is someone "just like us" who'd rather sit around and play her Nintendo Switch than go out and sip champagne in fabulous sunglasses. As much as I wanted to hear from the publicist that St. Vincent was as gorgeous and fearless and avant-garde as she always seems, I also was secretly hoping that she was nice. The Nowhere Inn seems to indicate that both are true, but presents the evidence in a pleasantly beguiling package. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.