Meadowland

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Luke Wilson in Meadowland
"The splintered pain of grief interrupted marks out the directorial debut of Reed Morano."

The splintered pain of grief interrupted marks out the directorial debut of Reed Morano. And as you might expect from a cinematographer with a long track record (Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings), she knows how to capture a strong image, even if her narrative, scripted by first-timer Chris Rossi, drifts in places. She has also assembled a formidable cast with names such as Juno Temple, Elizabeth Moss and John Leguziamo all popping up in small but effective supporting roles.

But the film really belongs to Olivia Wilde, playing Sarah, a mum whose regular life with her husband Phil (Luke Wilson) is about to be shattered by the disappearance, in the first few minutes of the film, of her young son. The idea of a child nipping to the loo never to return could lend itself to thriller territory but here, in a choice continued throughout the whole film, Morano shows us the anguish without hysterics, returning to the couple once the initial horror has given way to a more chronic pain that neither of them can alleviate.

Sarah is on lithium and almost certainly drinking too much, and sleepwalking through her life as a senior school English teacher, while Phil takes respite from his job as a beat cop and the feelings of sorrow he struggles to articulate at a regular church hall meeting for bereaved parents. Their lives, once both cleaving to their child, have fragmented in his absence and the film reflects this, presenting snapshots of their daily grind, the sense of the everyday ticking along without their full engagement. As Phil begins to focus on the prospect of some sort of resolution, Sarah is cut adrift with her feelings, her alienation emphasised as she shrinks into a bright yellow hoodie and wanders New York's Times Square, Morano hugging her close and making us feel as lost in the world of brightness and buzz as she is.

Later, in a rooftop scene with Phil's brother Tim (Giovanni Ribisi), Morano uses light to enforce Wilde's almost religious fervour that her child is still alive, while Ribisi's face is a mask of paralysed dismay and powerlessness in the glow of her conviction.

Sarah's feelings begin to home in on her students. She quizzes one girl about self-harm and gradually begins to fixate on a youngster with Asperger's. In one of the film's more subtler metaphors - much more successful than the obvious one that crops up late in the runtime - his obsession with elephants mirrors her inability to focus on anything but her conviction that her son is alive. Wilde confines her performance, pulling her energies inwards so tight that she almost thrums with tension. All the while, Morano picks out startling moments of release - a blade on skin, the last crumb of a chocolate chip cookie discovered in the night.

Sarah's story holds most of the complexity, with Phil taking a more familiar trajectory that slows the film down in places. But Wilson's performance, though perhaps the simpler of the two is also notable for its quiet intensity, which encapsulates the puzzlement of grief. Towards the end, those larger metaphors crop up and some of the subtlety is lost for the sake of climax but this is an impressive debut that illustrates the loneliness of loss.

Reviewed on: 05 May 2015
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A couple find their lives shattered by the disappearance of their son.

Festivals:

Tribeca 2015

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