Melanie Lynskey’s Best Film Performances, Ranked
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Melanie Lynskey’s 13 Best Film Roles, Ranked

From But I'm A Cheerleader to I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, Melanie Lynskey is a scene-stealing indie film legend.

by Kriska Desir
Originally Published: 

From an Emmy-nominated and Critics Choice Award-winning role in Yellowjackets to a tough, tailor-made role in HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us, Melanie Lynskey has solidified her standing as a star — a ringer, even — on the small screen. The New Zealand actor’s name has become synonymous with her quiet but indelible presence on screen, the kind of meticulous performances that are arresting and memorable whether Lynskey is in a comedy, a drama, or a gritty mix of the two. Lynskey has the rare gift of both laser-sharp comedic timing and a deep well as a dramatic actor that allows her to deliver striking blows of truth, regardless of the size of the role, and even as her characters navigate outsize, unthinkable stakes. Now, her small, ardent following has exploded into a long overdue level of visibility that has made this new chapter of the actor’s nearly 30-year career her most lauded yet.

Still, before there was Yellowjackets, or even the Duplass brothers’ short-lived but impactful series Togetherness, Melanie Lynskey had slowly and quietly built a reputation as a show-stealing “indie queen.” Though the attention Lynskey has received for her work in television is more than well-deserved, her independent film career is rich, varied, and most importantly, allowed Lynskey to shine in complex, grounded roles even when her options in the mainstream were limited to “the fat friend.” Ahead of Yellowjackets Season 2, explore the best of Lynskey’s feature film roles that made her the captivating TV presence she is today.

1. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (2017)


In this gritty but heartfelt comedy thriller, Lynskey appears as Ruth, a nursing assistant whose house is burglarized, prompting her to join forces with her oddball neighbor (Elijah Wood sporting a sick rattail) as the two embark on a vigilante hunt for the culprits. Though the film was released in 2017, its themes of alienation are oddly prescient, made even more salient by a lockdown that has laid bare both our capacity for unity and bitter apathy. That is all to say, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity in Ruth’s grappling with the simultaneity of an infinite universe and the terrible mundanity of human behavior — the depraved, careless, and all too predictable ways in which we can treat one another. Still, Lynskey does not only show off her dramatic chops here; she transforms into a riveting action star. Her performance is as physical as it is searingly cerebral. And did I mention Elijah Wood’s rattail?

2. Heavenly Creatures (1994)


Lynskey plays opposite Kate Winslet in both their feature film debuts, a dark and feverish interpretation of the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case in Christchurch, New Zealand. Winslet’s Juliet is the picture of Anglo-perfection — porcelain skin and perfectly coiffed hair that betray her wealth alongside a teenage rendition of refinement. Meanwhile, Lynskey as Pauline is dour, brooding, rough around the edges, and most importantly, enraptured rapt by the spoiled, but nonetheless enchanting, Juliet. Winslet and Lynskey’s chemistry is the cornerstone of a film that is equally as concerned with the girls’ surreal, gauzy fantasy world as it is with the frenetic, dizzying, and violent velocity of their relationship. Still, it’s the refrain of Lynskey’s sullen and piercing stares into the distance that haunts you long after the girls’ devastating capacity for both rage and imagination culminates in tragedy.

3. Hello, I Must Be Going (2012)


Blindsided by a recent divorce, 30-something Amy Minsky (Lynskey) moves back in with her parents with nothing to her name but a “liberal arts degree and a phony masters.” Unmoored and looking for dry land, Amy begins a love affair with Jeremy, the 19-year-old stepson of her father’s client. Amy’s is a case of regression to the extreme: She is at perpetual odds with her admittedly unsympathetic mother (the hysterical Blythe Danner); she repeatedly verbalizes a childish fear of getting in trouble; and she even dresses like a teenager, complete with pigtails and bra straps sticking out under her tank top. That Amy begins an affair with a teenager is both imprudent and somehow all too fitting of her temporary retreat to the safety of her parents’ care, the safety of giving up, the safety of acting like a teenager. Though for much of the film, Amy lets herself believe she has no control over her actions, Lynskey steers the ship masterfully, diving deep into the indignity, humor, and heart of Amy’s midlife crisis with a warm and deft touch.

4. But I’m A Cheerleader (1999)


Lynskey’s expert comedic timing brings even more color to the vibrant, campy cult classic set at True Directions, a conversion therapy camp where Lynskey’s Hilary has been shipped off to be scared straight among the likes of all-American cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) and self-assured, defiant Graham (Clea DuVall). Hilary is intense, overbearing, and obsequious — determined to graduate and see through all five steps of the True Directions program despite the absurdity of it all. Her unwavering seriousness and her bespectacled yet withering looks of disdain for the other, less committed campers are made all the more ridiculous when juxtaposed with the camp’s oversaturated, Barbie-pink hues. Yet, Lynskey manages to complicate a character that one might write off as caricature; she plays Hilary with a certain charm and that all too familiar teen-girl desperation to be seen. It’s a desperation that manifests both as brazen horniness and a misguided, oppressive striving for perfection.

5. The Intervention (2016)


Reunited with Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall in the latter’s directorial debut, Lynskey plays the tightly wound ringleader of the titular intervention in this comedy-drama about a dysfunctional friend group of four couples. Three of the four couples have planned to confront the fourth (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza) about their marriage, which the group believes has run its course. Lynskey’s Annie has a drinking problem that threatens to upend the whole operation, which goes as well as you could imagine. (Read: It backfires and reveals the cracks in the surfaces of the others’ relationships.) The ensemble is well-balanced, but it’s Lynskey who proves to be the comedic force here with her booze-fueled micromanaging and deeply unsubtle digs at Lola (the young, artsy drifter played by charming-as-ever Alia Shawkat). The film is quiet and makes no groundbreaking revelations, but it ultimately leaves you wanting more of Lynskey.

6. Away We Go (2009)


This sweet, low-key indie follows young, expecting couple Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) as they travel the United States, visiting friends and acquaintances to decide where they’d like to raise their family and how exactly they’d like to live. The film features comedy giants like Allison Janney, who plays a deliciously obnoxious woman living in Phoenix, and Catherine O’Hara as Krasinki’s flighty mother. Lynskey, however, manages to steal the show — even among heavy hitters — as Munch, a college friend of Burt and Verona’s who has suffered a series of miscarriages. In an arresting pole dancing scene, it’s not so much the way Lynskey moves her body around the pole but the way her sorrowful eyes reach out to you through the screen that makes her small role loom large, haunting, and unforgettable.

7. The Informant (2009)


Steven Soderbergh’s wry take on this true story of white collar crime follows Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistleblower who leads the FBI to investigate food-processing giant Archer-Daniels Midland (ADM) in a massive price-fixing conspiracy. Though on its surface, the tale seems to be a simple case of David versus Goliath, it becomes clear that Whitacre is a compulsive liar, crushed under the weight of his untreated bipolar disorder, his shameless love for the limelight, and the more than $9 million in funds he’s embezzled from ADM. As Whitacre’s lies stagger out of his control, his wife, Ginger (Lynskey), is his steady right hand, the stable foundation that remains even as Whitacre’s house of lies crumble around them. In a scene where Ginger sits by Whitacre as he flails in the shallow pool of another one of his lies to the FBI, her eyes force you to wonder if her faithful support stems from spousal duty, enabling, or complicity. Whichever it is, the film makes for a stunning exploration of the stories we tell about ourselves enough that we begin to believe them.

8. Up In The Air (2009)


2009 was quite the run for Lynskey, who appeared in Away We Go, The Informant, Leaves of Grass, and Up in the Air. In the last film, George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a smug bachelor who’s accumulated almost 10 million miles traveling the country as a firer for hire — a corporate consultant who fires employees for companies that would prefer not do the dirty work themselves. While most would find life on the road unappealing, Bingham prefers the sleek, impersonal, manufactured ease of hotel bars, airport lounges, and rental cars over a life that would demand any sort of commitment from him. His soon-to-be-married sister Julie (Lynskey) appears for most of the film as a cardboard cutout. In the flesh, Julie is sweet, cheerful, and glowing — the living antithesis of the corporate gloom in which the film resides. On Julie’s wedding day, it’s up to Clooney to give a pep talk to her fiancé, who’s developed cold feet. It’s Lynskey’s charm that makes Clooney’s act so heroic; she is so lovely that his ability to save her wedding transforms Peter Pan into Prince Charming.

9. Don’t Look Up (2021)


In this star-studded and ambitious satirical high-wire act, Lynskey delivers the most human, nuanced performance amidst all the end-of-times madness. Lynskey appears as June, the supportive wife of Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), an astronomer trying to convince America’s political minds to take urgent action against a comet that threatens to destroy the Earth. Lynskey’s role is small, but as always, the actor is a force, maximizing each minute she appears on screen. In a scene with perhaps the most genuine emotion in the film besides the dinner party that ends it, June pelts Mindy with his various prescriptions one by one upon discovering his infidelity. It’s not the first time Lynskey has played the wife of a whistleblower, but her performance is steady, measured, and delicate in a film that is entertaining but ultimately as subtle as the comet hurtling toward it.

10. Ever After (1998)


Lynskey’s second-ever movie role is as Jacqueline, one of two stepsisters of Danielle (Drew Barrymore), in this dreamy, nostalgic reimagining of Cinderella. Jacqueline is mild-mannered, living in the shadow of her prized sister Marguerite, but Lynskey’s comedic chops — her eye-acting, especially — make Jacqueline lovable. In a scene where the stepsisters’ mother (the indomitable Anjelica Huston) takes an opportunity to push Marguerite onto the prince, Lynskey steals the show with nothing but a single line and a ridiculously long green feather. Whether it’s an eyeroll at her mother and sister’s shameless power grabs or a sly glance at her love interest, Lynskey proves several times in this film that she doesn’t need many lines to make an impact.

11. Coyote Ugly (2000)


Though it’s Piper Perabo as Violet who earns the nickname Jersey in this iconic blast from the Y2K past, Lynskey’s character Gloria is the true Jersey girl here. Complete with the accent and the acrylic nails with French tips, Gloria reads at first as Violet’s unassuming best friend. She has after all, stayed in New Jersey while Violet has moved across the Hudson to become a songwriter, supporting those dreams with a job at the titular bar where sultry, impossibly thin bartenders dance every night to a roaring crowd of loyal patrons. Still, Gloria is fiercely loyal and protective of Violet: She hands Violet a giant wad of cash after moving her into her sh*thole New York apartment. Gloria takes the time on her wedding day to subtly facilitate a reconciliation between Violet and her father (the very lovable John Goodman). She even shows up at the hospital on her wedding night to emotionally support Violet when her father is in an accident. No, Gloria does not chase her dreams in New York, but she is an everywoman and an extraordinarily honorable one at that; that is the true essence of a Jersey girl. The movie — like Gloria — does not claim to be anything it’s not. It’s lighthearted nostalgia that ultimately doesn’t ask much of you, and thank God for that.

12. Shattered Glass (2003)


Based on the true story of one of modern journalism’s biggest scandals, Shattered Glass stars Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, a young reporter whose idiosyncratic charm and journalistic instincts have made him the darling of The New Republic — that is, until a Forbes editor’s probing exposes Glass as an elaborate liar. Christensen is the picture of genteel boyishness with wire-rim glasses and an almost cloying need for approval; even as you watch him sink rather ungracefully into the quicksand of his own fictions, a small part of you still roots for his escape. Lynskey plays fellow journalist Amy Brand, a wallflower fact-checker to Glass’ golden boy journalist. In a scene where Glass pitches one of his entertaining fabrications to the rest of the adoring staff, Lynskey’s admiring gaze in particular pulls your focus. Peter Sarsgaard, though, is the true star of the film as Chuck Lane, the noble editor forced to unravel the whole web of lies even as the rest of the staff remains under Glass’ spell. Even still, the scene in which Chloë Sevigny blithely informs Lynskey that she isn’t funny is a treat — especially because the heartbreak in Lynskey’s eyes and even a cursory knowledge of the actor’s work beg to differ.

13. Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)


Cemented in the coming-of-age canon, Stephen Chbosky’s film — adapted from his own best-selling novel — wears its bleeding heart on its sleeve. Logan Lerman stars as Charlie, a lonely high schooler who finds his place among a group of endearing misfits. Ezra Miller’s magnetic, breakthrough performance makes for a bittersweet rewatch, given the disturbing allegations against them that have accumulated over the years. Meanwhile, Lynskey’s role as Charlie’s late Aunt Helen — the perpetrator of Charlie’s sexual abuse — is a surprising turn for the actor. Though Helen only appears to us filtered through the haze of Charlie’s memories, her specter imposes on the film, mysterious and omnipresent. The heartbreaking film is well worth a revisit, if not for its capable leads, then for the powerful dose of Tumblr nostalgia you might feel upon hearing the words “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

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