Strange But True (2019)

Some things are impossible to conceive

Strange But True opens with a crippled young man, Philip Chase (Nick Robinson), fleeing from an unknown pursuer in a blue-saturated wood in an unplaced location, then rapidly cuts to a wedding-cake upper-middle-class home in the suburbs. Inside, Philip is listlessly lounging around on his mother’s couch, recovering from an accident that has sent him back to the family home — in a cast and on crutches — from his life in NYC as a photographer. Philip and his mother Charlene (Amy Ryan) are in a tense, exhausted, and grief-embittered stand-off. Charlene is downing alcohol and pills and living in a constant state of unresolved fury about the death of her youngest son Ronnie (Connor Jessup), five years ago, in a car accident on the night of his senior prom.

Thousand yard stare.

In true Rear Window (1954) style, Philip observes a young woman, Melissa Moody (Margaret Qualley), as she arrives at their door. She is Ronnie’s ex-girlfriend, and is heavily pregnant. Philip’s surprise and confusion at seeing her soon turns to consternation when she reveals that she believes the child is Ronnie’s, who she claims has been mysteriously conceived, as she’s certain the only time she ever had sex was senior prom on the night he died. The audience is baited into trying to puzzle out what on earth is going on, and how these scenarios will connect.

Melissa is simultaneously luminous and fragile when delivering the enigmatic news about her baby. Weighed down with survivor’s guilt over the accident that killed Ronnie, she’s beginning to realize his death was not her fault. It’s clear from Charlene’s fury that the only one in the room who might accept that is Philip. Melissa produces a cassette given to her by a psychic (played with magnetism and cynicism by Allegra Fulton) that suggests that the baby is Ronnie’s gift to her and his family, a message that will serve as a beacon and balm for them all. Melissa asks for nothing, simply providing Ronnie’s family an opportunity to share in the miracle. Suspicious and enraged, Charlene throws her out of the house, and we’re left wondering if Melissa is genuine, unhinged, or a grifter. More out of spite than belief, Philip snaps at his mother that with contemporary science it’s possible Melissa is pregnant with Ronnie’s child, and thus the search for the truth of its paternity is sparked for mother and son, both taking divergent and convergent paths along the way.

Lean on me

The first mystery that requires solution is where has Melissa been in the years subsequent the accident? The answer lies in that she’s been living in semi-seclusion with an older Norman Rockwell-esque child-free couple comprised of the solicitous Gail, played by Blythe Danner, Meet the Parents (2000), and the cloyingly paternal/ paternalistic ex-cop Bill, played by Brian Cox (currently garnering yet more career clout in the ongoing HBO dramedy Succession). They have been acting as de-facto parents for her since her own Christian family kicked her out for turning towards spiritualism as a way to connect to Ronnie. Melissa is finding solace preparing for the birth yet had been earlier losing time and blacking out. All appears surface level copacetic and earnest.

Too many fill-thrills happen in the rush to uncover what’s going on. Eventually, the alienated, Florida dwelling, remarried father, Richard Chase, Greg Kinnear, Little Miss Sunshine (2006), gets dropped in the mire, primarily it appears to be yelled at and accused of ugly behavior by Charlene. The mystery shifts to a race against time, and perfunctory markers are met to try to balance the momentum with the reveals. None of it gels.

Obviously and obliviously pure.

By the time we return to the opening scene in the forest, all revelations have become increasingly cheap. What would be better served by more subtle slow reveals is a bogged down mess of heavy-handed prefiguration, where the inevitable twist can be anticipated long before it happens. After the elaborate setup and tease the film flounders. The audience is left wondering if we have enough investment left to care about it, let alone find it credible.

Margaret Qualley, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019), is an up-and-coming legacy actress (her mother is Andie MacDowell) and her mixture of fragility, naïveté, and conflicted faith is better than the script allows. Nick Robinson, Love, Simon (2018), shows great range as a young man hiding his own pain and secrets whilst trying to avoid being a cipher for Ronnie. His motivation is consistent. The film is invested in a kind of melodrama that plays to the worst instincts of some of the performers, with Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone (2007), struggling to bring the material above the level of camp. Blythe Danner is more convincing but hamstrung by the unfocused and clichéd script. Greg Kinnear is reduced to a plot device having to atone for Richard’s reasonable actions considering the tragic loss of his child. Brian Cox does as much as he reasonably can with Bill, but even he seems confused as to what kind of film he’s in with the constant tonal shifts.

Hunting for the truth or hunted by it?

It’s disappointing that a film that could have been a fine meditation on grief and the journey to healing is swallowed up by conventions and tropes that relegate the film to a pedestrian neo-noir cum gothic melodrama that isn’t sure if it’s riffing off Lynch, Fincher, or pale imitations of both. Eric Garcia’s screenplay (adapted from the novel by John Searles) is sloppy where it should be tight, and overwrought where it should be subtle. As the novelist behind the script for the vastly superior Ridley Scott vehicle Matchstick Men (2003), it’s fair to be let down here.

Rowan Athale, The Rise (2012), shows promise for an early-career director, yet Strange But True requires more balance and consistency so as not to rely on imagery audiences can easily codify. If the film sorted out what genre it wanted to belong to, the audience would be less confounded and considerably more engaged, with the pacing having some reference point. That said, the cinematography by Stuart Bentley, score by Neil Athale, and production design by Adam William Wilson are firm but faceless, and a few structural flourishes make for a more lyrical ride to an overly pat ending. Filmmaker Athale does manage a deft touch occasionally, especially when he’s contrasting the euphoria of first love and the potential of youth to the drudgery of grief. The finest, albeit muddled, statement that the film makes is that everyone wants to be seen, acknowledged, and have some legacy that’s shared with a family — something that is indeed true, but not strange.

2 / 5 – Average

Reviewed by Nadine Whitney

Strange But True is released through Icon Film Distribution Australia