The second film from British-Indian director Rowan Athale flew slightly under the radar at EIFF this year in the Best of British strand. Despite a hugely impressive cast this middling affair falls between two stools in terms of its execution. It seems destined to be remembered as a mildly curious footnote in the career of Margaret Qualley as she adds to reputation-building work in The Leftovers and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.
The premise is certainly intriguing. Melissa (Qualley) waddles up to the house of Charlene (Amy Ryan), the mother of her boyfriend Ronnie (Connor Jessup). The young woman is nine months pregnant and to Charlene’s horror announces the baby is his. The problem? Ronnie was killed in a car smash five years earlier. Is Melissa a liar? Deluded? Or is there a more sinister explanation?
This shivery idea is more than enough to initially hold the attention, particularly as a prologue hints at having at least one toe in the horror genre before teasing at a similar quasi-supernatural atmosphere as Jonathan Glazer‘s exemplary Birth. Strange But True is however too mundane to mine this for anything like the same effect.
The chief error Athale makes is to set up the film as a serious family drama (particularly after the genre-inflected beginning) before a sudden third act plunge into hysterical and lurid psycho-thriller. While such an abrupt diversion can work when a film has at least been creeping tonally in that direction – such as with the creeping unease in Darren Aronofsky‘s mother! or Ari Aster‘s Hereditary. Here it seems significantly less earned. You feel that the story could have been better served if Athale had committed to pure pulp from the off. The central idea would certainly have supported it.
It would also have been of benefit to the likes of Greg Kinnear and Amy Ryan, who are somewhat adrift in slightly bland roles. Ryan in particular is given little to do except wallow in a character consumed by bitterness without the liberty to go big with the performance. Once the central intrigue is resolved this also sidelines Melissa as a character and reduces her, or more specifically her womb, to a plot point. This is a real shame as she gives easily the best performance. A role will undoubtedly be along soon that will send Qualley stratospheric, but for now this is a tantalising waste.
Strange But True remains watchable enough, especially with its stellar cast, but neither maintains its essential mystery or commits enough to the salacious detour of the third act. With the means he had at his disposal, this feels like a spurned opportunity for the sophomore director.
Available on VOD from Fri 27 Sep 2019