To be perfectly up front, I went into Marmalade with extremely low expectations. The directorial debut of Paul Blart actor Keir O’Donnell has all of the trappings of the kind of festival darling I typically hate: quirky, frivolous rainbow-colored vibe, “cool” cast of up ‘n comers doing a stylized version of a story you’ve seen dozens of times before. To my surprise, O’Donnell has a bit more up his sleeve. And while the film is far from perfect, and indeed has many of the aforementioned traits I despise, performances with surprising gravitas and a deft mix of heist and film noir sensibilities make Marmalade an unexpected charmer.
Stranger Things star Joe Keery leads the film as Baron, a simple Southern boy who we first meet after he’s been hauled away to prison. He doesn’t rest on his laurels for long; Baron needs to get out and reunite with his enigmatic sweetie, Marmalade (Camila Morrone), and to do it he’ll need the help of his cellmate, Otis, played by the actor I really tuned into this movie for, Aldis Hodge. Otis, a breakout king of some renown, agrees but only after he’s told a long-winded tale of love and bank heists, sick moms, and Moon Pies.
The film largely centers around the mysterious Marmalade, with Morrone playing her like a Manic Pixie Dream Femme Fatale. It’s a fun role for Morrone, who has shown her comedic chops on the brilliant Never Goin’ Back and her dramatic range on Mickey and the Bear. The way Baron tells the story, she’s got his innocent ass all twisted around her little finger, and he’ll do anything that she says, and that includes robbing banks to pay for his ailing mom’s drugs. And why shouldn’t he listen to her? She’s gorgeous, more worldly than he is, and has a sob story that could break the hardest of hearts. But don’t let the wild, colorful hair and crazy fashion sense fool you; this Marmalade is anything but sweet when she wants to be.
O’Donnell has a lot of influences at play here. I’ve mentioned the femme fatale role for Morrone, but Keery’s Baron also resembles some of the duped patsies from that genre. But he’s also clearly inspired by the likes of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Marmalade resembles a mix of Raising Arizona and True Romance, although the screenplay isn’t nearly as clever, the characters never as interesting.
I have to confess that my opinion of Marmalade shifted three or four times during the movie’s brisk 100-minute runtime. I went from hating it for all of the reasons I entered into it; to appreciating the performance by Morrone; to disliking it for the seeming misuse of Hodge; and then finally it won me over with twists that genuinely caught me off-guard. In class film noir style, almost nobody in the film is exactly who they say they are, and the film has to reorient itself with each reveal. In one case it adds considerable weight to a significant, tragic moment for Baron, and ultimately adds to our understanding of Marmalade. As for Hodge, his role as Otis expands into something that an actor of his skill can chew into, and he makes the most of it with a commanding presence that nearly steals the film from everyone.
But Marmalade is still a bit too cute for its own good, and O’Donnell can’t help throwing in a dash of whimsy to please the Gen Z arthouse crowd who expect that sort of thing. A surreal dance break emerges out of nowhere and disrupts the flow of the entire movie just as it’s really starting to cook. By the time it comes around, though, you’re probably already on the hook for whatever O’Donnell is going to throw at you. Appropriately, Marmalade concludes on a sticky sweet note, but also a surprisingly heartfelt one that will leave audiences feeling all warm inside.
Marmalade is available in theaters and VOD now.