Review: Palm Springs

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti appear in Palm Springs by Max Barbakow, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Chris Willard. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

What’s Going On?

Sarah is the maid of honour for her sister’s wedding and as she is very much the black sheep of the family it is not a day she is looking forward to. At the depressing party after the ceremony, she meets the bizarrely dressed (for a wedding ) Nyles who gives a brilliant off the cuff speech that reduces guests to tears with his poignant insights on love. This oddly beguiling figure with seemingly no concern for the consequences of his actions charms Sarah and the two leave the party and after an odd series of events, Sarah follows Nyles into a cave. She wakes up a moment later but is back at the hotel, waking up on the day on the day of the wedding. Sarah and Nyles are trapped in a time loop – to put it simply it’s Groundhog Day but with two people stuck in the loop.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by Max Barbakow, a director I am unfamiliar with but is also the director of the documentary Mommy, I’m A Bastard and he deserves some praise for that title alone. The film is written by Barbakow and Andy Siara, again another person I’m not familiar with but has worked with Barbakow before.

In Front of The Camera

Palm Springs // Credit: Limelight

The film stars Andy Samberg (best known for Saturday Night Live and Brooklyn 99) and Cristin Milioti (who has appeared in How I Met Your Mother, season 2 of Fargo, The Wolf of Wall Street and more), with a very fun supporting role for Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons. First of all, I defy anyone not to be charmed by Nyles and Sarah. Nyles who has seemingly been stuck in the loop for a long time, maybe thousands of days, has adopted a make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation attitude and concentrates on having a nice time and, importantly, not hurting people. He is permanently dressed inappropriately and virtually always has a beer in his hand. Nyles has already been through the disbelief, anger, attempts at killing himself or flying to the other side of the world and is resigned to this life. Sarah starts off defiant but quickly adopts a similar attitude to Nyles but likes to try and have a bit more control. J.K. Simmons is on top form as another wedding guest who has some issues with Nyles and takes it to extreme lengths.

The Setting

The film’s title is taken from the setting, Palm Springs, a resort town in California and I think it’s worth taking a moment to talk about this. Groundhog Day’s title focuses on the day it is, this film’s title, on the location. They are effectively on holiday, away from their homes, in Sarah’s case surrounded by family and people she has known for years, whereas Nyles is very much a plus one for another guest. Swimming pools are a surprisingly constant feature of the film and often the best thing they think to do with their time is lounge in the pool drinking beer. The other feature of the setting is that it’s a wedding which certainly for Sarah is bringing up all kinds of feelings about family, her life and the bad things she has done. A wedding is seen by some as of huge significance and Nyles and Sarah are forced to watch someone go through something so important and special while they are stuck, never having any significant events.

Does It Work?

The film is very enjoyable and has very poetic and insightful moments about life. The part of the film that is the most fun is when the pair first start heading off adventures after accepting their lives – whether alcohol-fuelled excess, wild parties, impossibly elaborate practical jokes or becoming experts at often trivial tasks it is very funny.

Neither Sarah nor Nyles were particularly happy at the start of their loop and more and more details of the exact circumstances that lead them to the wedding and their own views on life. Sarah often states that she messes things up, has messed up her life, and so this state of affairs where she can step away from her life is very tempting. At the same time, part of the nature of her loop is being confronted by mistakes in a very real and direct way so no matter what she does or how far she funs she always comes back to it.

Palm Springs // Credit: Limelight

Inevitably you can’t help but think what you’d do in this situation – there are no consequences so do you take a path of hedonism? Of achieving perfect knowledge? Or horrific murder sprees knowing that things will reset when you go to sleep? Maybe you do them all – the endlessness getting to you in different ways.

The final third of the film is a little less satisfying than the rest of it but does try and do something different to films and tv shows that have explored this idea. There are various “solutions” explored but I’m not aware of anyone getting out of it this way and an interesting example of a character being very proactive. Perhaps the most satisfying thing we get in Palm Springs is the discussions between the characters who are going through this together, especially as one has a different perspective as they have been stuck in the loop far longer than the other. The film also doesn’t shy away from some of the darker and even nihilistic ideas that could be explored in this scenario. I feel I am still making my mind up about the ending – trying to decide if it is good but conventional or if it really goes against what you expect.

This is a film I’d definitely recommend – very funny with a great partnership of the two leads.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Also Read: The Film Fan’s Guide To Time Travel

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Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.