Marcy is a widow, living by herself in her own suburban home, with an adult daughter and a dog. She’s also busy: not just with her job as a history teacher, but with classes and workshops, all designed to make her happier or better in some way.
None of it seems to be clicking, however — she’s still the same old Marcy at her core, going about her routine and work without much joy. So Marcy does something out of the ordinary: she signs up for a “50 Shades of Grey” sort of class.
The lessons prove unexpectedly practical and fulfilling, and when Marcy meets a younger man online, she’s ready to put her new knowledge and growing confidence to the test.
Writer-director Julia Kennelly’s dramedy is about finding joy, meaning and purpose in the most unlikely of avenues. In the same way that viewers will find a surprisingly rich and heartwarming character portrait within the premise, Marcy discovers an unexpected source of hope and personal freedom in the workshop.
Many stories about risque topics mine the milieu for shock or broad comedy, but what works here is the film’s elegantly restrained directing and its almost prosaic, workaday presentation of its supposedly shocking subject. It’s presented as part of the continuum of self-improvement options that Marcy cycles through, full of practical tips and exhortations of self-love and positivity. The storytelling has an eye for the wry, ironic detail and a warmly affectionate take on the absurdities of human behavior, and the patient, observational directing takes pleasure in tucking away moments on wit and humor in the margins of the frame and story, like in a wide shot that includes a kneeling submissive as a helpful human footstool during the workshop.
The spare, almost minimalist writing and pacing allow for a spaciousness in detailing Marcy’s routine and frustrations. It also allows for lead actress Rachel Dratch to truly shine in a deeply resonant performance. Those who know Dratch from her broad comedic work on “Saturday Night Live” and feature films will find her work here richly grounded and endearing in both its vulnerability and humor. She hits the notes of vague dissatisfaction and emptiness at the character’s beginning with depth and relatability, which makes her blossoming self-empowerment all the more wonderful to witness, especially when she connects with someone who will appreciate her newfound confidence.
“Marcy Learns Something New” rewards its viewers with a fantastic ending scene that is heartwarming in its tenderness, empathy and emotionally generous humor. (They just might also learn some fascinating trivia about U.S. presidents in the process as well.) The ending is emblematic of the film’s adventurous, big-hearted spirit and its ultimate belief in the resilience of human beings. No matter where we are in life, we have the ability to grow and learn — and to find hope, connection and healing, even in the most unexpected of places.