Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir-scr Michel Franco
prd Michel Franco, Duncan Montgomery, Erendira Nunez Larios, Alex Orlovsky
with Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Brooke Timber, Merritt Wever, Josh Charles, Elsie Fisher, Jessica Harper, Jackson Dorfmann, Alexis Rae Forlenza, Lexie Braverman, Elizabeth Loyacano, Blake Baumgartner
release UK Oct.23 lff,
US Oct.23 afi
23/US Mubi 1h40

wever charles fisher
london film fest
afi fest

Is it streaming?

sarsgaard and chastain
Enormous issues ripple through this nuanced romantic drama, adding unusual depth of feeling as characters confront the past and future. Mexican filmmaker Michel Franco never takes the easy route, cutting in and out of scenes with an edgy style that leaves space for questions and contemplation. It's unusually vibrant storytelling, rooted in how experience and memory define our sense of identity, and not always in the most helpful way.
Now 13 years sober, Sylvia (Chastain) is protective of teen daughter Anna (Timber), maintaining a relationship with her sister Olivia (Wever) but cutting off communication with their mother Samantha (Harper). When Saul (Sarsgaard) follows Sylvia home from a school reunion, she mistakenly thinks he abused her when she was 12. But he has dementia and remembers nothing. This opens painful memories for Sylvia, and she's startled that Saul's gentle, caring demeanour is like a healing balm. His brother Isaac (Charles) initially encourages their friendship, but becomes angry when he suspects that more is going on.
Each person in this story operates on the basis of deep-seated feelings relating to their experiences and relationships. And this is never remotely simplistic, presented as textural rather than an excuse for behaviour. So the film becomes a moving depiction of a range of people who are on their own personal journeys, encountering each other in ways that are sometimes life-changing. There are no straightforward answers, but the clear message is that repression, silence and isolation only cause more pain in the long run.

Franco shoots this in an unusually vibrant style that creates a vivid sense of perspective, cutting between Sylvia's and Saul's points of view. This allows Chastain and Sarsgaard to make these people bracingly realistic, in an offhanded, stripped-down way. Their actions are messy and impulsive, but there's a consistency in the characters that draws us into the tender connection between them. And the surrounding cast beautifully brings to life the fully formed people around them, with a particularly strong turn from newcomer Timber as the observant, open-handed Anna.

The central irony is that Sylvia is trying to forget her past while Saul wants to remember his, but both are learning to live with their realities in ways that are far too honest for the people around them. Indeed, a truthfulness runs through all of the film's more provocative emotional shifts, and Franco's often unnervingly astute observations continually allow us to see the world through a new point of view.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality 28.Oct.23 afi

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© 2023 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall