“Had my eyes positively glued to the screen.”
Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller here, back for a second time covering the EIFF! Glad to be back. More films more fun.
The suburban noir genre gets a capable but fairly average new entry in Rowan Athale’s Strange But True. The story, written by Eric Garcia from a novel by John Searles, follows the fallout of a bizarre meeting between a young pregnant woman and a grieving family. In the grey, quiet suburbs of New York, a very pregnant Melissa (Margaret Qualley) visits the home of mild-mannered, withdrawn Philip (Nick Robinson) and his mother Charlene (the always talented Amy Ryan). She knows them under tragic circumstances; she was dating their son Ronnie when he suddenly died on prom night five years earlier. Which makes matters particularly strange when she informs the two of them that she believes the baby inside her is Ronnie’s.
This forms the catalyst for the film’s spiraling developments. Charlene dismisses it as offensive and delusional hokum, though eventually considers certain ways it might just be true. Philip does some sleuthing on his own, even working around his broken leg to get to the bottom of whether Melissa is attached to any form of reality or not. The film takes some care to illustrate Philip’s detective skills; his passion for photography and his extensive memory of his brother come in handy as he stalks around asking former classmates and contacts what to do. Their tinkering ends up involving Philip’s father and Charlene’s ex, Richard (Greg Kinnear), whose initial introduction as a shallow opportunist is intriguingly deconstructed as he tries his best to unravel the mystery. The story makes clear that while the mystery is the priority, the characters’ painful and unforgotten histories and misunderstandings are key to working out who to trust and who is withholding important truths.
The key question on many of the characters’ minds is essentially whether Melissa is nuts or not. She insists she has not been with anyone else who could have left her with child, and seems, to all who know her, to be of sound mind. Yet as the film and its characters sink deeper into the underlying tensions in their quiet town, everyone from gracious neighbors like Bill (Brian Cox) and Gail (Blythe Danner) to local psychics and law enforcement get involved in unearthing some uncomfortably dark secrets.
If darkness and secrets are your thing, this will likely entertain you. Strange But True is by no means a bad film, it is simply quite a self-serious one, which often leans more towards suspense than entertainment. Athale achieves some suspenseful sequences that are brilliantly tense, yet many other moments meant to be suspenseful are too languid and irrelevant to have an effect. Certain scenes towards the end, in particular, present some head-scratching twists that unfortunately fall into a common trap with twisty noirs: they come out of nowhere, and make no sense. A montage near the end is both impressive and puzzling : whilst it ties together multiple timelines and flashbacks quite well, it really doesn’t provide much in the way of new plot developments. On another note, though perhaps I have seen too many noirs myself, but one ‘major’ twist towards the end was teased so heavily around the midway point that it greatly reduced the intended shock of its eventual reveal. It’s the kind of scene that makes you go “Oh, so they did it” — and you would be right.
Beyond the plot, there are also some intriguing choices elsewhere, for better and worse. The cast is undeniably an impressive bunch; Ryan and Cox in particular turn in performances that serve as effective reminders of their talent. Yet everything, from the acting to the visual craft, feels a few steps away from being truly cohesive or impressive. Kinnear and Danner are fine, but produce nothing particularly memorable; Robinson is a blank face for most of the runtime; Qualley is good at her expressions but less so on her delivery. Numerous shots are simply too dark, too fast, or too muted to leave an impression, and though some of the suburban scenery is captured well, momentarily, Athale rarely lets his camerawork breathe. Again, his approach also results in some winning moments, including a climactic sequence that I admit had my eyes positively glued to the screen. Yet the power of these infrequent moments (and, unfortunately, the limp and regrettable ways they often tie back into the overly twisty plot) mainly highlight the many missed opportunities in the rest of the film.
Unlike theatre of course, one cannot recommend a film try something different in a future performance. But if Strange But True had a chance to rework some elements, and tightened up its visuals and its performances with more practice and focus, this could be a genuinely engaging piece. As it is, however, it is a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller that could use more strange, more energy, and more thought.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller