How far would you go to get your first job in your dream industry? This seems to be the quintessential question for ambitious young people in the 21st
Julie (Sarah Warren) is an aspiring young actor from North America who has come to London to star in a terrible b-movie about vampire mermaids. When the film inevitably loses its funding her day is made even worse when on leaving the script-reading she accidentally hits an older woman called Bella (Jo Price) with her car. This results in her having to repay the woman with an unusual favour: spying on Bella’s stepdaughter Joy (Deidre Garcia) to see how she is spending her allowance.
Desperate for cash, Julie reluctantly accepts, but in order to cope with the uncomfortable absurdity of the situation she decides to treat the mission as just another acting job. She stocks up on spy gear, practices her accents and decides on a code name to set about trying to uncover what Joy is up to.
At the same time as her newfound spy work, Julie is still trying to audition so must meet increasingly dysfunctional and narcissistic casting agents who make her bizarre offers for everything except acting work. Her one silver lining is that she meets Harry, a simple nice guy who shares her love of video games and cake and wants to take her on a normal date. Yet as she gets deeper involved in the people that she is spying on, a normal date becomes increasingly hard to achieve…
The film introduces Sarah Warren as terrifically funny scriptwriter and actor, comfortable onscreen and adept at performing and directing visual comedy. Much of the dialogue between Julie and her best friend Camilla (Julie Sype) is particularly funny – a mix of Sarah Silverman’s self-deprecating honesty and Caitlin Moran’s being-a-modern-woman-is-hilarious feminism.
In between the comedy (there are some very funny lines) is a tenderness and warmth which urges you to empathise with the characters. Julie has a love of puppetry, which manifests itself as a kind of inner monologue told through a series of dreamy stop-motion vignettes that vocalise her anxieties and quirky observations about relationships.
The film also manages to capture the beauty of London in a way that only someone who has recently moved here can – the cinematography acts a love letter to Soho, Greenwich and elsewhere without ever feeling like a tourist video.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah to record a podcast at the LOCO comedy Film Festival where MLE first premiered, and she assured me that this really was based on actual events – which not only makes it funnier, but also reflects the desperation and exploitation that exists in the film industry for ambitious young female actors. The depiction of disinterested and cruel casting agents is a familiar one, but the three on display here are particularly vile, especially the coke freak who interrupts auditions to buy more gear…
This deeper message about sexism and exploitation is what gives the film its real teeth. For all of the humour around the craziness of film auditions and the big personalities who act as gatekeepers to that world, the film highlights how glamorous the industry can feel and simultaneously how crushing it can be to be rejected or ignored. The temptation to fulfill the sordid requests of the powerful in order to (maybe) gain access to the inner sanctuary is all too real and problematic.
What’s great about M.L.E. however, is that knowingly or unknowingly, the film actually fails the reverse-Bechdel test as at no point do two named men have a conversation about anything other than Julie – which is a wonderful reversal of the usual dominance of male voices.
The film is unashamedly about what its like being a woman in 21st century London whilst also perfectly reflecting the economic struggles of young people in Cameron’s Britain – a fun and sweet film that captures the strange (and broke) time we live in.
There are no funnier young, female comedy directors in the UK right now…