The last decade has been great for indie comedies. Advances in technology and the rise of online streaming platforms means that films made by small companies with low budgets and relatively unknown casts and crews can reach a greater audience than ever before.
These films tend to be more character and dialogue driven than Hollywood comedies. They also tend to offer a greater diversity of viewpoints and tackle serious issues in more unique and interesting ways. Of course, they are still comedies though. And as laughs go you can’t go wrong with the films in this list, all of which should be considered essential viewing for fans of this particular sub-genre.
1. Junebug (2005) – Phil Morrison
After a whirlwind romance, art dealer Madeline marries charming southern gentleman George. Six months pass, and when Madeline finds herself travelling south to secure a deal with an eccentric artist, she and George use the opportunity to visit George’s family. George’s mother and father are quietly welcoming towards the couple as is his pregnant sister-in-law Ashley (though not so quietly). George’s brother Johnny, however, is sullen and withdrawn.
As Madeline does her best to endear herself to the family, she forms a special bond with Ashley whilst at the same time finding herself intrigued by the emotionally distant Johnny.
Phil Morrison’s directorial debut Junebug works as both a comedy and a drama with its comic and tragic elements freely mingling and complementing each other.
The pressures of being a young couple expecting a child are also vividly conveyed through the performances of Amy Adams (for which she was Oscar-nominated) and Ben McKenzie as Ashely and Johnny respectively. Exquisite cinematography from Peter Donahue also ensures that Junebug is as visually interesting as it is thematically.
2. Smiley Face (2007) – Gregg Araki
Jane F is an unemployed actress who spends most of her days eating, playing computer games, and smoking copious amounts of weed. She lives in an LA apartment with her strange roommate Steve who one morning leaves a note instructing Jane to pay the gas bill before the day’s end (otherwise they’ll be disconnected). In addition, he leaves a plate of cupcakes in the fridge with a note telling Jane not to eat them as they’re for a sci-fi convention he plans to attend.
Inevitably a high Jane ends up eating all of the cupcakes. It isn’t long, however, before she realises the cupcakes have been laced with cannabis. The rest of the film follows the very stoned Jane as she attempts to deal with her various responsibilities: attending an audition, paying the power bill, and, of course, baking Steve more cupcakes.
Smiley Face presents a change from Araki’s previous film Mysterious Skin; rather than following up the dark drama of that film with more of the same, he instead opts for something far goofier and light-hearted. Does he pull it off? Yes he does.
As well as Araki’s direction, there are many things to recommend Smiley Face: an anarchic script from Dylan Haggerty captures all the confusion that comes from being very high while the traditionally male-dominated stoner film is given a shake up with Anna Faris giving a great comic performance in the lead role. Adam Brody and Jane Lynch also provide excellent support.
3. Juno (2007) – Jason Reitman
When sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff discovers she’s pregnant after a sexual encounter with her long-time friend Paulie, she finds herself forced to make a choice: should she get an abortion or should she go to term and give the baby up for adoption? As well as this, she also has to deal with her feelings for Paulie, who is still very much in love with her.
Although both criticised and praised by those in the pro-life and pro-choice communities, Juno is not an avidly political film. Instead, its ultimate message is one of taking responsibility.
A witty and warm script from Diablo Cody (which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and committed performances from Ellen Page, in the lead role, and Michael Cera make Juno an immensely watchable late noughties comedy.
4. Happy- Go-Lucky (2008) – Mike Leigh
Primary school teacher Poppy is resolutely optimistic and positive despite what the world throws at her. This doesn’t change even when her bike is stolen. As a result of this, she starts learning to drive and is paired with her polar opposite: the embittered and conspiracy theory obsessed driving instructor Scott.
Mike Leigh’s tenth feature film mixes the social realism of his earlier work with a light on the heels energy and exuberance. Its central character is superbly played by Sally Hawkins while Eddie Marsan is terrific as the perpetually angry Scott.
Riddled with dramatic moments as well as hilarious ones, Happy-Go-Lucky is an indie comedy with lasting impact.
5. (500) Days of Summer (2009) – Marc Webb
(500) Days of Summer is a romantic comedy with a difference; to paraphrase its deep-voiced narrator: it isn’t a love story. Well, not in the sense that both parties are in love with each other anyway. The film follows greeting card writer Tom Hansen through his turbulent relationship with co-worker Summer Finn during the five hundred days of the title.
While Tom is a classic romantic, Summer, as she tells Tom, is not looking for anything serious. Initially, Tom has no problem with Summer’s stipulation that things be kept ‘casual,’ but as he and Summer spend more time together he finds it increasingly difficult to keep his feelings in check.
(500) Days of Summer differentiates itself from other romantic comedies in a number of ways. Its non-linear narrative, which jumps back and forth between different days in Summer and Tom’s relationship, provides an excellent contrast between the rose tinted early days and the unhappier ones that later follow. The film also puts an interesting spin on the wise best friend character often seen in rom-coms by placing Tom’s younger sister Rachel (played by Chloe Grace Moretz) in the role of advisor.
The film isn’t just all gimmicks, however. A superb script from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and committed performances from leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel ensure that (500) Days of Summer is both relentlessly funny and insightful.
6. Tiny Furniture (2010) – Lena Dunham
Film studies graduate Aura returns from liberal arts college to her family’s apartment in the Tribeca neighbourhood of New York. There she struggles to deal with postgraduate malaise, conflicts with her artist mother and sister, and a crowd of self-involved friends.
Few films deal with the anxiety of leaving full-time education so honestly and humorously as Lena Dunham’s sophomore feature. The ‘struggle’ of protagonist Aura (also played by Dunham) to adjust to adult life and find some direction for her creative sensibilities is mined for all its comical potential as we witness her make a wave of bad decisions, culminating in a beautifully cringe-worthy scene involving a construction pipe.
The other cast members (including Dunham’s actual mother and sister as her fictional mother and sister) also acquit themselves well. Jemima Kirke, in particular, is noteworthy as Aura’s friend Charlotte, a half British socialite who is unabashed about her own sense of entitlement.
Tiny Furniture won several indie film awards upon its release and with its witty script and true to life performances it’s not hard to see why.
7. Submarine (2010) – Richard Ayoade
Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut is a coming of age story set in a small Welsh town. If this makes you think of the British kitchen-sink comedies of yesteryear you’d be forgiven, but in bringing his story to the screen Ayoade takes more inspiration from his American comedy counterparts (Woody Allen, Wes Anderson) as well as classic European cinema.
Adapted from a novel by Joe Dunthorne, the plot follows schoolboy Oliver Tate as he tries to woo his pyromaniac classmate whilst at the same attempting to avert his parent’s potential split.
Strong performances from young actors Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige are backed up solid work from older cast members Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, and Paddy Considine. A fantastic script (also written by Ayoade) ensures that the film’s hilarious set pieces – including plenty of awkward parent child conversations – are punctuated by more dramatic scenes, thus adding real substance to the film’s bucketfuls of style.
8. Klown (2010) – Mikkel Norgaard
Middle-aged comedian Frank is surprised to discover that his long-time girlfriend is pregnant. He is even more surprised when she says she doesn’t think he has ‘father potential.’ In an effort to persuade her otherwise, Frank decides to kidnap his twelve-year-old nephew Bo and take him on the canoe trip he was planning to undertake with his lecherous friend Caspar.
What follows is a parade of social faux-pas, debauchery, and drunkenness as Frank tries to balance his need to prove himself a responsible adult with Caspar’s – ahem – more animalistic urges.
Based upon the successful Danish sitcom Klovn, Klown combines Farrelly brothers- esque cringe comedy with excellent performances from Frank Hvam and Caspar Christensen (who also wrote the film), and a razor sharp script. Its surprisingly touching storyline also adds a heartfelt layer that doesn’t feel at odds with the many gurn-inducing moments.