Strange But True

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Strange But True
"As the film digs into psychological stress, Athale crafts the sharp, unspoken parts of grief into shards that cut at his characters." | Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

When we meet them, grief over the death of the family's elder son Ronnie (Connor Jessup) has already chilled the Chase clan to shattering point. Mum Charlene's (Amy Ryan) exchanges with her younger son Philip (Nick Robinson) are more like bitter salvos in a long-running conflict than conversations and her doctor ex-husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) has flown south to Florida with a new wife. So when Ronnie's girlfriend Melissa (Margaret Qualley) turns up pregnant on the doorstep five years after his death, she's not exactly welcome - and that's before she insists she is carrying the dead teen's child.

Director Rowan Athale - working with Eric Garcia's adaptation of John Searles' book - immerses us in the family's secrets and lies, which grow wider and deeper as the story progresses. As Charlene hunts for a potential logical explanation for the pregnancy, Philip - whose broken leg has pointedly also gone undiscussed with his mother since it forced him to move home from the city - considers more otherworldly options. Flashbacks begin to make the night Ronnie died flicker into focus, filled with warmer emotions that emphasise the coldness of the family home now, where cinematographer Stuart Bentley allows blues to dominate the colour palette. Melissa's home - a cottage near a pair of kindly neighbours Bill (Brian Cox) and Gail (Blythe Danner) - meanwhile, contains hints of sunnier yellows, including the crib she is painting.

As the film digs into psychological stress, Athale crafts the sharp, unspoken parts of grief into shards that cut at his characters, particularly Charlene. The director also does a good job of balancing his central storyline with the flashback action, while fleshing out the relationship of his subsidiary characters - although having the likes of Cox and Danner to sell these roles certainly doesn't hurt.

This careful construction means that it comes as a shock to the system in the film's last third when - heralded by a spot of flickering "horror" lighting in a basement - the director throws us from the fridge of the family into the more visceral and deep-fried thrills of southern Gothic. These aren't mental injuries any more, but the sort that flow with blood. Athale and his A-list cast are so committed to his new course, however, that they just about get away with it and it distracts from the fact that once the central mystery of the film is revealed, the previous enigmatic tensions are punctured and need to be replaced with something. If the action loses some of its enjoyably cool composition, it still grips until the last.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2019
Share this with others on...
Strange But True packshot
A family grieving for the loss of a son face trouble when his girlfriend shows up five years later, claiming she is pregnant with the dead boy's child.

Festivals:

EIFF 2019

Search database: