Performing in any way is bittersweet. There’s the rush of adrenaline before a performance, the intimacy that springs up between cast members, the satisfaction that comes from putting on a show that goes well — but there’s also post-show blues, the possibility of tanking or embarrassing oneself and, for anyone planning on pursuing a career in performing, the potential for failure.
“Don’t Think Twice,” directed by Mike Birbiglia (“Sleepwalk With Me”), captures the wildly swinging highs and lows of performing through the quiet story of an improv troupe called The Commune, founded by Miles (Birbiglia). Allison (Kate Micucci, “When in Rome”), Bill (Chris Gethard, “The Heat”), and Lindsay (Tami Sagher, “How I Met Your Mother”) love performing improv at The Commune, but they prefer writing. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key, “Keanu”) is one of Miles’s former improv students, and Samantha (Gillian Jacobs, “Community”) was such a dedicated fan that eventually Miles invited her to join the troupe as well. Jack and Samantha’s romantic relationship is established in the first scene they have together; they appear blissfully in love.
All six struggle routinely; most hold down day jobs that don’t excite them, except for Lindsay, who still lives her wealthier parents home and applies for unemployment money. The group learns that The Commune will be shut down for lack of funds, but that isn’t the problem that threatens to splinter the group. “Weekend Live,” a purposefully unsubtle nod to “Saturday Night Live” goes to see a show at The Commune one evening, and Jack — as per usual, judging from the annoyance of everyone else in the cast — decides to let himself shine. He treats the show as an audition, finding ways to perform his best impersonations even though they don’t fit in with what the rest of the cast is doing. Later, he learns that he and Sam have been invited to audition for Weekend Live. He is over the moon about it; he lands the gig. Sam plans and practices for her audition, heads into the building, and then leaves. She tells Jack and everyone else that they wouldn’t let her in because she was late.
The relationships between all six friends immediately begin to show signs of strain; even Sam reluctantly recognizes that Jack’s dynamic with the rest of the group has shifted. Jack becomes more and more stressed about his place at “Weekend Live,” even as another member of The Commune makes it on as a writer. Sam’s relationship with Jack also begins to fray as they realize that he wants to rise to the top of the industry and she just wants to do improv.
The film’s cast illustrates the unwanted tension that comes from being friends, coworkers, and competitors. It’s the kind of heartbreak that doesn’t come from tragedy or antagonism — there are no true antagonists in this film — but from the small misfortunes in life. It’s the kind of heartbreak that comes from seeing how the truth can be wielded as a weapon.
Key, Birbiglia and Jacobs are fantastic. Each of the men show a specific facet of desperation: Key, the man who has gotten his first foot on a ladder and is scrambling to climb it as the rungs are falling away beneath him, and Birbiglia, the man who is watching his window of opportunity shrink before his disbelieving eyes. Jacobs is phenomenal as the grounded foil. She’s the only one in the whole troupe who has no interest in “Weekend Live,” or anything like it; she’s in The Commune because performing improv gives her joy, even though it is strongly hinted that she is the most naturally talented of the bunch.
And that’s what is eerie about this meta film. It puts you in two minds at once. What’s it like to be smiling on a stage — with a blur of faces in front of you and cheers hitting you in waves — and remember someone at home that you know could be doing this better than you can? And what’s it like to be sitting at home watching your friends get famous doing something you know in your heart you could do it better? When do you stop feeling bad about pyrrhic victories and accustom yourself to sacrifices?
“Don’t Think Twice” is evocative not only because the gorgeous cinematography and scoring compliment the talent of the cast and the subtle, fine shadings of the writing, but because, though improv is an art form of its own and a niche subsection of performing, the kinds of hard hitting questions that the film forces you to think about are applicable across careers. It is almost impossible not to identify with one — or more, which is even scarier — of these characters.