Somewhere in the middle of Bright Lights, the new HBO documentary about Hollywood legends Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Reynolds’s home alarm goes off as she’s being interviewed. The camera wobbles from side to side as the crew tries to figure out how to shut the screeching thing off, an irritated Fisher shuffles to their aid instead of heading home to sleep, and Reynolds sits calmly in bright pink pantsuit, waiting patiently for the chaos around her to end. When it doesn’t, she begins singing “Just One of Those Things,” a cute little number from her film with Frank Sinatra, The Tender Trap.
Based on what Fisher tells us about her mother throughout the film, this is Debbie Reynolds at her most Debbie Reynolds—poised and professional, a little stuck in the past, and blissfully incapable of admitting that something is ever wrong. It’s also Carrie Fisher at her most Carrie Fisher—putting Debbie Reynolds first.
That scene alone is reason enough to watch the film, which is an unexpectedly nebulous little thing that starts strong and sort of struggles by the time it reaches the finish line. Bright Lights begins and ends on the Los Angeles “compound” where Reynolds and Fisher lived until their deaths, and is less about their past than it is about the hazy, sparkly mess of (what no one knew would be) their final years together. We see a little of Carrie off on her own, signing autographs and taking photos at a nearby Star Wars convention, but this is mostly about the two of them living and working side by side. In the interviews, Carrie and Debbie talk about Debbie and Carrie (respectively) with a hint of exhaustion, as though they want us to think they’re sick of it after all these years, but it eventually becomes obvious that they’re each other’s favorite subject.
In the film’s opening voiceover, as Debbie attempts to convince Carrie that she loves both she and her younger brother Todd equally, they have this brief exchange:
CARRIE: Do you like Todd better than me?
DEBBIE: No. It’s just that every child is different.
CARRIE: I don’t buy this.
DEBBIE: You never bought anything that I’ve said.
Delightfully acerbic banter like this (which floods the film, thank god) often feels rehearsed, like they’ve both said these things a dozen times before—but maybe they have. Part of what made their relationship so beautiful and perhaps even admirable to their fans was that their love for each other—as deep and strong as it was resentful and angry—has been perhaps the only constant in their tumultuous lives. As they grappled with disastrous romances, addiction, and mental illness, what they always had to fall back on was each other. So yeah, maybe they did have the same conversations over and over for six decades—but maybe that’s because they never wanted them to end.
Bright Lights, though a little scatterbrained and directionless (especially in its final third) is a gentle, minor tribute to one of Hollywood’s greatest loves that proves how lucky we were to have them, and how much luckier they were to have each other.