“Why do people keep asking me that?” Cora (Megan Stalter) asks somewhere around the fifth time in Cora Bora that someone angrily demands to know what is wrong with her. Her answer, when she can be bothered to give one, is that nothing is. But it’s been clear from the opening moments of Cora Bora that that’s very far from the case.
Her fledgling music career seems to be going nowhere, despite the sweaty determination with which she lugs her broken guitar case from one dismally under-attended Los Angeles club to another. Her love life is no more promising: Her open long-distance relationship with Justine (Jojo T. Gibbs) is growing only more distant, and the hookups she has on the side are more cringey than satisfying. When she begins to suspect Justine’s fallen in love with someone else, she impulsively buys a plane ticket back to Portland, where she unleashes still more mess.
The Bottom Line
Stalter delivers in a warm, if slightly flimsy, indie.
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Cast: Megan Stalter, Jojo T. Gibbs, Manny Jacinto, Ayden Mayeri
Director: Hannah Pearl Utt
Screenwriter: Rhianon Jones
1 hour 32 minutes
That Cora Bora takes all of this in and embraces her anyway, finding both humor and pathos in her millennial malaise, is key to its appeal. But if the film’s strength lies in its affection for its title heroine, its greatest flaw is a comparative lack of attention toward the characters surrounding her — yielding a film that, for all its likable beats, feels flimsier than it should.
By far the best reason to watch Cora Bora for Stalter, who in her first feature lead performance makes a convincing case for many more. The actress is perhaps best known for her turn in Hacks as Kayla, whose utter incompetence is outmatched only by her almost pathological self-confidence. Cora shares with Kayla a fundamental inability to be anyone but herself, as well as a general air of chaos. But Cora Bora also affords Stalter the opportunity to expand her range, drawing out new notes of sadness or uncertainty in Cora’s comedic bluster. In moments the movie asks her to dig deep, she breaks Cora open with such raw, ragged sincerity that it’s hard to look away.
Stalter also turns out to have a pretty, if unpolished, singing voice. Cora’s songs (penned by Miya Folick, whose own music soundtracks much of the film, along with screenwriter Rhianon Jones) are pulled from her own life, and their lyrics are hilarious in their jadedness. “Dreams are stupid and so are you for believing in them,” goes one. “Why try and be a better person when dating apps exist,” goes another. When a stranger (Margaret Cho) describes one — which starts with the line “Love is a joke and it’ll break your heart” — as a love song, Cora rejects the label with a flatness that hints at a deeper hurt.
Throughout, director Hannah Pearl Utt (Before You Know It) captures both Los Angeles and Portland with a sun-kissed glow that seems to envelop Cora in warmth even as she careens from one minor disaster to another. And there are lots of them: the one-night-stand with a flat-earther (Thomas Mann) still hung up on his ex, the screaming match with a former friend (Heather Morris) over a past romantic betrayal, the argument with a flight attendant (Caitlin Reilly) after she tries to claim a first-class seat she hasn’t paid for. At least the latter provides Cora with an alluring romantic possibility in the form of Tom (Manny Jacinto), the handsome man whose seat she’d been trying to steal.
But Tom, like so many of the non-Cora characters in Cora Bora, gets little of the depth that Cora does. We’re told by one of Tom’s friends that he’s “drawn to broken people,” which explains why he seems so charmed by a woman who’s met his kindness with brusqueness at every turn. We get little sense, however, of why he came to be that way, or what it’s meant for his past relationships, much less any idea how that might bode for any future relationship with Cora. The relationships between Cora, Justine and Justine’s new “friend” Riley (Ayden Mayeri) are similarly explained more than felt in the dialogue, with more than one scene of Cora accidentally eavesdropping on their conversations about her — though by the end of the 92-minute feature they’ve built enough history together for a clever and genuinely touching twist on the rom-com trope of a grand romantic gesture.
As for Cora herself, Cora Bora eventually gets around to revealing the devastating event that forced her to move from Portland to Los Angeles. But it resists the temptation to draw too tidy a line between her past pain and her current aimlessness. “All those who wander are totally fucking lost,” Cora sings in the first act, and in the moment it sounds like an expression of anger and despair. The rest of her movie, though, makes the case that it’s okay to be lost — that Cora’s journey now, messy or uncertain though it might be, is worth embracing regardless of where she’s been before, or where she’s headed next.