Synopsis – A woman surprises the family of her deceased boyfriend by telling them she’s pregnant with his child.
My Take – It is never a good sign when a film sits unreleased for nearly two years, only to be unceremoniously dumped in a handful of theaters and on video-on-demand platforms.
Despite the presence of Nick Robinson and Margaret Qualley, two young actor who are slowly and steadily climbing up the stardom ladder, in leads, along with familiar actors like Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Mena Massoud, Blythe Danner, and Brian Cox in supporting roles, and juicy premise, this Rowan Athale (Wasteland) directed film should have been a significant draw.
If it would be my guess, I would say, the amount of mixed reviews it received from the film’s premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival played a hand.
Based on the 2004 novel by John Searles, the film is an odd mix of soapy melodrama and Lifetime thriller, buoyed by some stellar actors. I haven’t read the novel, but I have to think that it has a bit more nuance with the subject matter. Most importantly, the film is not quite the neo-noir that it presents itself to be.
This is a film that’s so tonally muddled, it’s difficult to figure out what kind of film director Athale set out to make. It’s a shame, because all the ingredients are there for a genuinely captivating thriller, but the film reverts back to stereotype and simplicity all too often for it to fully realize it’s potential.
Add to that the lengthy list of contrivances and shark jumps which the plot makes liberal use of, alongside some heavily hackneyed dialogues and director Athale’s thriller becomes more of an eye-roller than a nail-biter by its conclusion.
The story follows Phillip (Nick Robinson), a young photographer of some apparent talent, who recently returned to his mother’s home in a small town after getting into a mysterious accident in New York. Now, he’s relegated to the couch, his leg in a cast while his gruff mother Charlene (Amy Ryan) fusses around the house, while his father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), a doctor has moved to Florida with a new wife.
However, Phillip’s rehabilitation is disturbed by the reappearance of Melissa (Margaret Qualley), who claims to be pregnant with his elder brother’s baby. The only problem is, Ronnie (Connor Jessup) died five years ago. Unlike Philip and Charlene, Melissa isn’t all that concerned with the specifics of the conception, as a psychic told her the baby belongs to Ronnie, so she accepts it as truth.
Instead of trying to work out the details, Melissa instead chooses to spend her days preparing for the baby and helping out at a local hardware store under the supervision of an older couple named Bill (Brian Cox) and Gail (Blythe Danner). And as the story starts to peel back the layers of deceit, the adage that truth is stranger than fiction becomes pertinent.
This outrageous revelation sends both Charlene and Philip into separate investigative spirals. She seems convinced that Melissa did something to her son’s body postmortem, while he believes it’s more than likely someone else is the father. Unfortunately neither plot-line is all that engrossing. As with any B-film mystery, though, all this second-act investigation eventually starts gaining some traction and the story escalates to outlandish new heights in a flash, once again taking the story in yet another direction.
A properly bleak, pulpy noir has a stoic lead with integrity, a murderous and sinister villain, and a femme fatale. Its style is stark with mystery that leaves a lasting impression, and its dialogue is sharp and witty with no room for nonsense. However, none of this is present here, as screenwriter Eric Garcia and director Rowan Athale walks the viewer through each twist and turn without the slightest hint of nuance or respect for audience’s intelligence.
The mystery of Melissa’s pregnancy drives the plot, with the possibility of medical intervention, illicit affairs and, of course, divine intervention all in the mix. What begins as a sombre drama about family dynamics in the wake of a tragedy, eventually takes a sharp left turn into icky thriller territory, all of it undercut by a clumsy script and leaden dialogue.
Some of the lines here are so clunky that even reliable stalwarts like Brian Cox and Amy Ryan seem to be struggling to make them sound like something one would actually say. However the film’s biggest mystery is what went wrong? Plot holes, shaky performances, and inexplicable twists abound, but it somehow remains hazy where exactly the feature goes off the rails.
Once the previously teased climax comes back into play, the only sense of satisfaction comes from the realization that the feature must be nearing its end. Even so, the film drags on for another 10 or 15 minutes, now in full-on thriller mode.
The film has a looming tragedy at its heart, a truly heartbreaking one, and as a source for a devastating family story, is plenty already in making this something worth a watch, but the threads begin to fray when it backs itself into corners and then must cling to standards in getting us to the end. This includes the plotting back to the first scene where all the conventions of the genre make appearances, leaving behind the good start at wonder it begins with.
The character development also could have used some work. The main issue with the characters in this film is simply that the ensemble is too big. Since there are so many characters involved in the story, it is difficult to have them all fully developed and explored. Eventually, all of the subplots tie together into the main story, but for a majority of the film, some of the characters feel like throwaways.
To its credit, the film’s twists and turns are genuinely surprising, though not necessarily in a good way. I am sure director Athale is no slouch in building up palpable moments and works hard to wrap this drama into something more fraught with tension than it feels necessary.
However, it comes at a cost as the story doesn’t really have the pulp in the mix to make it as juicy as it wants to be. Here, he is unable to manage the balance of the tonal shift from the secrets-and-lies family drama to the grimy, exploitative thriller the film becomes. As a result, the third act doesn’t feel earned at all, just farcical and implausible, stretching the film’s credibility beyond breaking point.
Nevertheless, the performances are all respectable. Nick Robinson gives a subtle turn in the leading role, playing on some of the strengths he has shown in his other performances. Amy Ryan delivers some powerful work as always. Margaret Qualley continues to show her star making qualities, while Blythe Danner, Greg Kinnear, Mena Massoud, Connor Jessup and Brian Cox are wasted in smaller roles. On the whole, ‘Strange But True’ is a below average thriller that is never able to rise above its ridiculous script and plot inconsistencies.
Directed – Rowan Athale
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 96 minutes