Life after cancer for a twenty-something is given an artsy NY treatment.
There’s a life-stage sweet spot popular in film and television these days. The ambiguous mid-twenties to early thirties (since thirty is at least the new 25). A turning point in life where adulthood starts settling in and who and what we want to be takes definite shape. Like Frances Ha, HBO’s Girls, and Drinking Buddies before it, Lily explores one woman’s navigation through this time of life compounded by her recent completion of cancer treatments. The fact that first time director Matt Creed focuses on Lily’s (Amy Grantham) time immediately following her cancer-free diagnosis is what makes this more a life-stage transition tale and not a cancer drama.
Living in Manhattan and featuring the bourgie bohemian artist community, Lily undergoes her last few MRI’s and scans looking for any further sign of the breast cancer she’s been battling. At home she cares for her older boyfriend’s two sons, losing it in the bathroom as she copes with every day life in this newfound knowledge of cancer-freedom. No amount of the film is dedicated to discussing her life with cancer or how hard things were. Instead Lily grapples with moving forward now that she’s allowed to consider a future once again.
The film is mostly quiet, its lens focusing in on Lily’s daily doings, wandering through stores, teaching herself to tap dance, finally catching up with friends she’s not had time to consider. Given the time, she starts to consider her relationship with her boyfriend Aaron (Simon Chaput), whose advanced life, pre-existent family, and pretentious artist friends suddenly seem alien to Lily as she is allowed to consider who she is in this world. A particularly awkward but funny scene involves Lily, who’s likely not got much of a tolerance to alcohol after all that treatment, getting drunk and calling out froo-froo on a French friend of Aaron’s recalling an especially shmoopy memory of falling in love in Paris around a packed dinner table. It’s exactly the sort of story anyone would think is silly, but would hardly dare say aloud to an exotically beautiful French woman. When the same woman lights up a cigarette at the dinner with complete disregard toward Lily’s health condition, her snobby selfishness is just that much more evident and Lily’s newfound perspective (and drunken state) makes her unable to resist yelling at the idiotic woman.
Much of Lily’s interactions seem to be a statement on Manhattan and perhaps the Manhattan art scene altogether. There are whole scenes of Lily walking around the city. Spending time in parks, wandering through thrift stores, yelling at a driver who nearly runs her over and having her anger affirmed by the locals standing nearby. As Lily starts to try to gain back her independence she begins looking for work, reconnecting with her artist friends and asking them for jobs. One in particular is especially rude, giving her the pathetic line that offering her a normal job would be a disservice to her as it would leave less time for her to do her art. It’s a cop-out and Lily sees it. The line has been drawn between living and surviving. She’s still in survival mode, and she’s more aware than ever what it actually takes to get by. That any person would deny a personal survival help based on such a flimsy excuse just goes to show how limited some people’s scope is.
Grantham plays Lily with absolute sincerity, and the film reads more like a documentary at times. She successfully portrays a woman insecure and unsure with herself. Every time she rushes to put her thick wig on, she shows her inability to admit she can now be herself. (A shame because Grantham’s pixie cut for the role is utter perfection.) She’s likable, and conveys that sense of ‘What next?’ one sees on many twenty-somethings faces, especially as she’s late to the game now that she has to navigate networking and building a life and career she truly wants. There are a couple of scenes with Lily’s mother Nell (Rebecca Street) who won’t buy home decor without the approval of her husband, Lily’s step-father. Nell also survived cancer, and when Lily tries to talk to her about it, she realizes her experience surviving cancer has been so entirely different from her mother’s. Just proving that how we use the time we’re given is what defines us, not the past battles fought.
Lily entices with its subject matter and appeals because of its modern young-person perspective. Where it loses steam is in some of its slower sequences and in much of the lacking chemistry between Grantham and Chaput. Grantham and Creed co-wrote the film and they might have better revealed the reasoning for Lily’s initial attraction to a man so much older and so much more bourgeois than herself. And with any film focused on the advent of adulthood there is a level of frustration that accompanies Lily’s behavior at times where she fails to value herself. But it’s all realistically part of life’s transitions, and it’s why films such as Lily will always resonate with audiences.