It goes without saying, but to write, direct, and star in your feature debut is an ambitious undertaking. None of that fazed Karen Gillan, as she put on all three hats for her initial foray into filmmaking. That confidence shows, as “The Party’s Just Beginning” functions much more than as simply a showcase for Gillan. It’s a fully fleshed out character study, one that slowly builds to an effective conclusion. The occasional first-time director quibbles arise, but by and large, Gillan clearly showcases a handle on the gig. With this outing, she’s established herself as a multi-hyphenate to watch out for. Simply put, she’s got the goods.

Building blocks are paramount here. “The Party’s Just Beginning” continually adds little bits on to the characters, giving you more and more insight into what makes them tick. The first act is a lot of observation and set up, while the third act finally gives us a few answers about why people are who they are here. However, it’s in the middle section that Gillan shines, both in front of and behind the camera. That’s where the comfort level is at its highest for her, as well as where the film is on its firmest ground. A dramedy at its core, the second act contains the best combination of the serious and the silly.

From the outset, it’s clear that Liusaidh (Gillan) is dealing with a major malaise. As she goes about her life in a small Scottish town, floating through the days, making one bad decision after the next, that becomes more and more apparent. One look at her stuffing fries into her mouth after a random hookup tells a whole story. Whether it’s the numerous sexual indiscretions she has, the binge drinking, the bad attitude, or even just how she sees her friend Alistair (Matthew Beard) in daydreams, something is wrong. Very wrong, in fact. Liusaidh would never admit it, her family and friends might not fully notice, but she’s haunted. Literally. Before long, it becomes clear that Alistair has committed suicide.

As Liusaidh deals, or more accurately, doesn’t deal with that recent tragedy, she begins talking with two men who bring out a bit of emotion in her. One is an elderly gentleman who calls by mistake, while the other is an older lover in Dale (Lee Pace). A divorced father, he’s as depressed as she is, just in a different and more open way. Her flings with him become as much about conversation as sex. Through it all, we piece together more and more of what happened to Alistair and why it’s affected Liusaidh in such a lasting way.

Gillan herself manages to be best in show here, giving “The Party’s Just Beginning” her best work to date. The sadness of her character is mixed with some very funny moments. Gillan leans into both with equal gusto. She never sugarcoats Liusaidh either. Most of the time, she’s deeply unpleasant. At the same time, she’s an incredibly compelling character to follow around. Gillan’s chemistry with both Beard and Pace is very solid, and that’s where the little moments about who she is a leak through. Beard has the bigger scenes, though Pace has a quiet desperation to his part that’s really interesting to watch. Arguably, the movie could have used more of him. Also on hand in small parts are Paul Higgins, Jamie Quinn, Siobhan Redmond, and more.

In addition to her starring role, Gillan functions as the sole writer, as well as directing. She gives the script a lived-in feel, allowing you to buy the central character regardless of what she’s up to. Kudos to Gillan for not pulling any punches. From the director’s chair, she falls a bit short in pacing “The Party’s Just Beginning,” though the early hump gives way before long. Edd Lukas‘ cinematography makes Scotland look as depressing as Liusaidh feels, while Pepijn Caudron‘s score is surprisingly intense. One could argue that Gillan doesn’t quite stick the landing at the end, but it would be a small quibble. By and large, she’s crafted a very strong debut.

If you only know Gillan as Nebula in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, prepare for “The Party’s Just Beginning” to shatter that. This character study is funny, intense, and sad, sometimes all at once. If Gillan wants to continue to write and direct, she should have no problem doing so. Going forward, her future as a triple threat is very bright. The industry needs more original female voices, and luckily, we have another one here.

“THE PARTY’S JUST BEGINNING” IS DISTRIBUTED BY THE ORCHARD AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON DEC. 7.

GRADE: (★★)

Be sure to check out our Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where this film ranks among the contenders!