Chelsea Peretti in “First Time Female Director.” Credit: Jonathan Furmanski
Rarely has a film gotten a full-body reaction out of me like First Time Female Director. Chelsea Peretti’s directorial debut made me cackle, yes, but more frequently, it made me wince. I gasped, squirmed in my seat, covered my eyes — the kinds of responses I’d expect from a horror movie instead of a comedy. Yet the way Peretti wields zany cringe comedy is enough to turn First Time Female Director into a horror movie of its own.
The titular first time female director is playwright Sam (Peretti), who has often written plays for her local theater, the Regis. However, after the theater’s usual director Greggy (Tim Heidecker) gets the boot for having relationships with cast members, the Regis’ creative director Sheldon (Andy Richter) brings Sam on to direct her latest work. “She’s a female, so she’s just the medicine we need,” he announces at a community meeting.
Everything that comes next is a delightful disaster. Acting workshops, tech mishaps, a ridiculous script…Peretti wrings laughs from it all. But First Time Female Director also dives deep into its characters’ passioned desires to make art and be seen — and more importantly, celebrated — because of it. It’s here that First Time Female Director cuts deepest, and where it provokes its most hard-hitting, uncomfortable laughs.
First Time Female Director is a laugh riot and a cringefest.
As excited as she is to get into rehearsals, Sam has no experience with directing. She also has trouble with assertiveness, telling Sheldon she has a difficult time asking for what she wants. “You’ve got to be confident,” he tells her. “These actors are hyenas.”
His pep talk leads her to adopt a false confidence, growling and clawing her way into the first table read as the cast’s “mama lion.” (Just one of many wince-worthy moments.) Her cast sees right through her, and it’s not long before their active disdain causes her to switch up her directing styles at the drop of a hat. Sometimes she’s a “cool” director who wants to rehearse outside, sometimes she employs a “good cop, bad cop” routine with the help of a trash can. Each new directing persona provides opportunities for laughs, as well as excruciating embarrassment.
Much of this embarrassment stems from Sam’s total earnestness. She practices saying “I’m a director” to herself in the mirror. She buckles her rolled-up script to her fanny pack. She’s a total try-hard, but she has no idea what she’s doing or how to ask for help — and as awkward as this is to watch onscreen, it’s also all too relatable. If you’ve ever tried desperately to be liked, if you’ve ever put your creative work out there, if you’ve ever been worried you’re out of your depth, you will see yourself in Sam, many flaws and all.
But Sam and her insecurities aren’t the only sources of humor (and horror) on display in First Time Female Director. For starters, there’s the play Sam’s written. Titled Rain’s Coming In, it’s a melodramatic Tennessee Williams-style Southern drama, all based on a play Peretti wrote(opens in a new tab) herself. It’s a family drama with big accents, 20 monologues, three funeral scenes, a ghost, and onstage rain. Any time the cast gets to ham it up onstage is a joy. (But if you’ve been in a similar play, you will once again feel a humbling twinge of recognition.)
Between fast-flying quips and some bonkers physical comedy, Peretti also finds humor in some wild editing choices. The table read and some rehearsals fly past in sped-up time lapses, while other moments are played out in slow-motion accompanied by over-the-top sad music. The effect can overstay its welcome the more it appears, but the initial result is a comedic fever dream perfectly in tone with Peretti’s heightened (yet still very real) portrayal of the theater world.
First Time Female Director’s cast is a who’s who of comedy.
The ensemble of “First Time Female Director.” Credit: Jonathan Furmanski
And of course, it’s impossible to talk about what makes First Time Female Director so great without mentioning its brilliant cast. Peretti’s performance is a perfect encapsulation of the film’s bizarro-meets-cringe tone, and there’s a nice meta element to it, as Peretti is a first time female director. (Luckily, her film is much better than Rain’s Coming In.)
Then, there’s the scene-stealing ensemble playing Sam’s cast: Kate Berlant, Megan Mullally, Benito Skinner, Megan Stalter, Jak Knight, and Blake Anderson. These six are comedy dynamite, each managing to capture a specific flavor of actor, from the kooky veteran of community theater (Mullally) to die-hard theater kids who are now die-hard theater adults (Berlant and Skinner).
Berlant and Skinner’s turns are both exceptional, straddling the line between overly committed actor and genuinely scary. Skinner is particularly menacing as Rudy, who grins maniacally at any sign of Sam’s downfall. Stalter is also a major source of laughs as influencer Davina, continuing her reign as the “new queen of screwball comedy.” Her repeated delivery of the phrase “wet T-shirt contest” genuinely made me tear up — one of many First Time Female Director moments I simply can’t stop thinking about.
Peretti also recruits several famed comedians for small roles and cameos, including Amy Poehler as Sam’s messy therapist Meg, and Adam Scott and Nicole Byer as acting teachers. Is the constant star power a little extra? Yes. But it’s a movie about theater people; extra should be the norm! Thankfully, Peretti understands this, and First Time Female Director goes above and beyond in every single way — including just how much it will make you cringe.
First Time Female Director was reviewed out of its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will stream on Roku in 2024.
Belen Edwards is an Entertainment Reporter at Mashable. She covers movies and TV with a focus on fantasy and science fiction, adaptations, animation, and more nerdy goodness.