It is a truth universally acknowledged that the trampy heroine of any modern female-slanted romcom must make Bridget Jones look like Grace Kelly by comparison. And while Leah McKendrick’s feature debut offers more caustic com than rom, it leans hard into the legacy of Helen Fielding’s famously underachieving singleton. Since then, we’ve had Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids and Sophie Hyde’s Animals, and Scrambled certainly belongs in that more riotous subgenre of movies about women behaving badly.

McKendrick takes a different tack to most, though, and its subject matter — how do you prepare for motherhood when you’re not yet fit to be a mother? — is a tough sell, and often feels like raw material for an incredibly personal stand-up set from a comedian that likes to shock with overshare.

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McKendrick — who writes and directs herself in her feature debut — plays small-time jewelry designer Nellie Robertson, who has recently broken up with her longtime partner, Shawn. We meet her at the wedding of her best friend, Sheila (Ego Nwodim), who seems shell-shocked by her own decision to tie the knot (“We were gonna be the last single bitches at the end of the earth!”).

Realizing that Sheila is pregnant, Nellie rescinds her kind offer of a tab of Molly, but drops one herself and parties hard at the reception. Which is where she has her epiphany: after running into an older friend, she gets a harsh lecture about the course her life is on. “I know you because I was you,” says the friend. “And so, the next time you’ve just boned a hot bartender and you’re sitting in his bathroom, staring at a shower crusted with pubes and that fucking Fight Club/Reservoir Dogs/Scarface poster, I want you to remember my face.”

That face will be there to remind Nellie that, contrary to her belief, the 30s aren’t “just the 20s but with money,” they are the gateway to the 40s, the 50s and forever. Which sets Nellie thinking about the prospect of parenthood and prompts one of the film’s many zingy one-liners: “I don’t even know if I want kids — I’ve seen Euphoria.”

This early mid-life crisis — brought on, as the prophet presaged, by a grubby bathroom and a Scarface poster — prompts Nellie to investigate the possibility of freezing her eggs, which will turn out to be a lengthy and expensive process costing thousands of dollars. So she borrows half and throws herself into the treatment, all the while surrounded by friends who are marrying off and leaving her behind “in the world of excommunicated singles”.

Having decided on a course of action, Nellie decides to get back into the dating game, calling up exes and various randoms for barroom hook-ups that throw up funny moments, like the shifty guy with an ankle tag who flees when his parole officer calls (he is dubbed “The Cult Leader”). Nellie also begins to dread visits to her parents’ home, where her loving but tactless father Richard (Clancy Brown) is baffled by the sudden onset of stasis in his daughter’s life – and talks about it a lot. Then there’s the nosy neighbor Parveen (Vee Kumari), who always seems to see Nellie at her worst.

It’s a good set-up for a comedy, with its girl-power sentiments about single-parenting and putting one’s emotional affairs in order. But the setup is really all there is, with no distinctive game plan other than to see Nellie get to the finish line with her treatment. And though McKendrick is a talented writer, she is likely to be a divisive presence, even for receptive audiences. She writes some great dialogue — mostly for herself — but there are pages and pages of it, and when Nellie is in her quieter moments… Well, she actually hardly ever is, because any shred of introspection is likely to be covered off in a frenetic montage, with Nellie dancing to a club banger or a power ballad, giving Scrambled a fractured, stop-start, show-tell-show kind of narrative, like a Pixies song in story form.

A key scene happens towards the end when Nellie attends a support group for the bereaved parents of miscarried babies and has been stood up the friend whose hand she is there to hold. It’s a schmaltzy scene that McKendrick skewers when Nellie gets up to leave, revealing her true situation and clumsily joking that she hopes to enjoy “the joys of miscarriage” herself one day. But the scene continues, and Nellie charms the birds from the trees with a staggeringly tone-deaf, solipsistic speech that, whether it happened in real life or not, plays out like the kind of nonsense you might read on Twitter’s “Didn’t Happen Of The Year Awards”.

It’s perhaps because the snark is so much original than the otherwise predictable emotional story beats that moments like this are so frustrating, and, indeed, Scrambled ends with a nagging sense of seriously unrealized potential, despite the artificial whoo-let’s-have-a-party sugar high that’s slathered over the end credits. Which may seem harsh, but as writer, director, and star McKendrick set herself a high bar to start with, and it’s to her credit that Scrambled comes with the promise of more and better to follow.

Title: Scrambled
Festival: SXSW, Narrative Feature Competition
Director: Leah McKendrick
Screenwriter: Leah McKendrick
Cast: Leah McKendrick, Ego Nwodim, Andrew Santino
Running time: 1 hr 37 min

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