‘First Time Female Director’ Review: Chelsea Peretti Gets Opening-Night Jitters in Her Own Directorial Debut

“I’m a director,” Sam Clifford (Chelsea Peretti) says in front of the mirror after landing her first gig directing a play she’s written. “I’m a director. I’m a director.” Whether she’s trying to convince herself or the ensemble of actors she’s pretending to address is easy to discern, especially given the circumstances of her hiring: Sam’s predecessor was relieved of his duties due to inappropriate workplace relationships and a female replacement is “the medicine we need.”

Peretti wrote, directed, produced and stars in “First Time Female Director,” which feels less like a coming-out party for an actual first-time director and more like a case of opening-night jitters. Reminiscent of last year’s “Theater Camp” in its affectionate sendup of the theater experience, which was likewise by and for those immersed in this world, the film struggles to find its footing at nearly every step of the way. But if it’s only occasionally ha-ha funny, it’s also a clear passion project for Peretti and her cast — albeit one it’s hard to share in their enthusiasm for.

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Sam’s first task is convincing her cast she’s a worthy leader, and “First Time Female Director” is most amusing in its portrayal of the actor/director relationship as akin to a pack of hyenas looking for any weakness to seize upon and exploit. They all want more control over their characters, more lines, more validation. Peretti is considerably more adept at handling thespians than her character is, and it shows in the level of talent assembled here: Andy Richter as the theater’s artistic director, Megan Mullally and Kate Berlant as cast members, Amy Poehler as Sam’s therapist, Tim Heidecker as her disgraced predecessor and Nick Kroll, Adam Scott and and Jordan Peele (who happens to be married to Peretti) in cameos as acting coaches.

The play itself, a family drama set in the South called “Rain’s Comin’ In,” is replete with bad accents and melodrama in the form of three funerals and 20 back-to-back monologues — details we learn at the three-hour table read, where Sam first realizes she’s in trouble. “First Time Female Director” shows some promise in these early scenes but, like its protagonist, quickly loses the plot as it struggles to manage its moving parts. Though its loose, improvisatory feel is suited to the material, most of its humor feels like the first draft of a better film — as though the entire movie consists of what should have been deleted scenes.

More weaknesses come on the technical side, especially the cinematography — the film’s lo-fi aesthetic is closer to the likes of “Modern Family,” “The Office” and other sitcoms with faux-documentary elements than it is to “Waiting for Guffman,” an aspirational point of reference to which “First Time Female Director” never lives up. The movie looks downright janky at times, and not in a charming way.

Peretti, a highlight of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” before departing the series, exudes little of the hilarious charisma she’s displayed in the past. Part of that is the character — Sam is uncertain of herself, in over her head and surrounded by idiots — but more of it is the fact that “First Time Female Director” mimics the vibe of its play-within-a-film more closely than it was meant to and Peretti never transcends that slapdash milieu. Hopefully she does better as a second-time director.

“First Time Female Director” streams exclusively on the Roku Channel starting March 8, 2024.

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