As part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019
Five years after the tragic death of a high school senior on prom night, his erstwhile girlfriend shows up at the house of his family sporting a 39-week bun in her oven. The kicker? She claims the baby is his, despite his demise years ago. The premise is certainly strange, but could it be true? That’s what his embittered mother and confidence-sapped brother, along with the audience, are tasked with finding out over the movie’s 96-minute duration.
To his credit, Eric Garcia makes a decent fist of translating John Searles’ source material (a 300-page novel) onto the silver screen with a snappy runtime and still managing to keep all narrative options open for as long as possible. Is there a supernatural force involved that has impregnated our damsel five years after the fact? Or maybe some more run-of-the-mill jiggery-pokery involving frozen sperm and artificial insemination? It’s anyone’s guess – and the movie’s biggest attribute is the likelihood you won’t see the twist coming.
Despite this fairly strong narrative and a stellar cast including Amy Ryan, Greg Kinnear, Blythe Danner and Brian Cox, the film falls down badly elsewhere. The characters are perhaps more accurately described as caricatures, with Ryan’s grieving mother an angry red rash of a persona, every line aimed to poke out an eyeball or stamp on a toe. Margaret Qualley is the doe-eyed mum-to-be who’s too sweet to believe, while the kindly old couple who take her in (Danner and Cox) are blessed with some dialogue so saccharine it should surely be followed up by a trip to the dentist. Nick Robinson, as the crutch-laden brother desperate to accept that part of his sibling still lives on, is the only one to emerge with any depth, but even his eager-to-please, eager-to-believe persona comes across as too heavy-handed.
Not that it’s the particular fault of the actors, but rather the script itself. Almost every conversation and action seems contrived to drip-feed us another clue or further the plot, with some of it more than a little implausible and other events outright incredible. By the end, the audience will be groaning rather than gasping in disbelief, given that the big reveal happens far too prematurely and the remainder of the film is allowed to descend into a denouement that aims to capitalise on suspense but really only trashes any credibility it had built beforehand.
It’s a shame, because all the ingredients are there for a genuinely captivating film, but Strange But True reverts back to stereotype and simplicity all too often for it to fully realise its potential. Add to that the lengthy list of contrivances and shark jumps which the plot makes liberal use of, alongside some heavily hackneyed dialogue (the line “I’m the highest-ranking librarian this institution has ever or will ever see” should surely never be played with a straight face) and Athale’s thriller becomes more of an eye-roller than a nail-biter by its conclusion.