Tim has joined a sleep study being held overnight in a laboratory. The great irony, though, is that he just can’t fall asleep once he settles in. The setting is too strange, the machines they’ve hooked him up to are too uncomfortable and it’s odd being in a new, unfamiliar place in the middle of the night.
Tim then enlists the help of the overnight technician — his only human companion during the session — to help him acclimate to the place and fall asleep. And amidst the strange setting and the nocturnal timeframe, the two make an odd but genuine connection.
Writer-director Matt Porter’s endearingly offbeat dramedy is essentially a slice-of-life narrative, dropping two disparate souls into a rarefied setting and situation and watching them bumble their way into a moment of friendship. Through a masterful yet deceptively simple command of craft and a compassionate eye and ear for the nuances of human neediness and vulnerability, it achieves a unique and captivating tone: it feels very much like an off-kilter, isolated yet oddly vivid incident in the middle of the night, where time and logic work just slightly different than during the day, and there is a patina of the unreal over everything that seems almost fable-like.
Deft, pitch-perfect and affectionately ironic writing forms the bedrock of the narrative, building with wit and economy two ordinary yet utterly individual characters. These characters exist in a skillfully evoked netherworld of urban quiet and isolation, and the images of empty hallways and somehow sleepy-seeming buildings have a spooky, gentle magic to them that captures the melancholy and mystery of deep night.
Tim, played by improv star Chris Gethard, is a knot of mannerisms, worries and anxieties, but he is also more than just “quirky.” Though we don’t know much about him outside of the film’s scope, his fears and stresses are genuine, and his distress at being unable to sleep is both childish yet relatable. His technician foil, played with droll stoicism by Zack Cherry, plays off him with equal parts resignation and slight annoyance. But when the technician finally hears Tim out and meets him halfway, the result is something both beautifully simple and magically rare: a moment of “being there” for someone when they need comfort and just a little help.
“Nighty Night” could be called modest and unassuming, and there is a kind of observational quality in its stillness and quiet. And with its lack of twists, shocks, high concepts, gimmicks, one-line zingers or relentless witty banter, its sense of humor is firmly on the character-based side, making it one of the subtler entrants in its genre.
But that doesn’t dull the power of its warmth or sweetness. By keeping its focus on the oddly ordinary, “Nighty Night” somehow extends the spirit of its generosity and good humor to anyone else who is oddly ordinary — which, of course, is all of us. And all of us may need a moment when we simply need someone to be there as a kind witness to our struggles — as major or minor as they may be. When those moments happen, they may be fleeting or temporary, but they are no less incandescent.