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Simon Read [Film Festival 07.03.19] Canada thriller

A neo-noir-thriller ensemble piece, Strange But True lands with a bit of a thud. It's a yarn about a young pregnant woman, Melissa (Margaret Qualley), who contacts her former boyfriend's family five years following his unexpected and untimely death, proclaiming that the child she's carrying must be his, as he was the only man with whom she'd ever had sex. The family - mother, father and brother - have since become fractured, attempting to cope with the boy's death in their own respective ways. They are understandably shaken by this impossible claim, and try to solve the mystery.

Melissa lives next-door to the world's sweetest old couple (Brian Cox and Blythe Danner) and, with their help, she prepares for the birth in her tiny cottage with the absolute conviction that the father is her long-departed ex. The brother, Philip (Nick Robinson), is recovering from a broken leg at home with his now divorced mother Charlene (Amy Ryan), as dad, Richard (Greg Kinnear), has moved to Florida to escape Charlene's increasingly toxic attitude to life following her son's death. Richard reluctantly returns to the nest and they try to figure out the situation.

It's quite a cast, and a pretty neat set-up for a thriller. Is the pregnancy somehow supernatural? Is it some kind of scam and, as Charlene believes, has Melissa been keeping the dead boy's sperm in her freezer? And where do Melissa's neighbours fit in, and why do they seem... well, too perfect?

For the first 30 minutes or so the film is pretty involving, but soon we start to lose focus on the plot and wonder, what is this film and who is it for? It's like one of those 3-in-1 products, a film about a family reconnecting following an extended period of grief, another about a miraculous pregnancy, involving psychic mediums and ghosts, and a third film about an elderly couple with a dark secret. Some of it works, but much of it seems overwrought and contrived, at least, until it becomes genuinely ridiculous. Director Rowan Athale attempts to keep the plates spinning and connect all these plot points in the final act, but the end result - a flashback and a twist - feels strained and faintly ludicrous.

Anyone who sees this odd little flick will immediately want to talk about Ryan as Charlene. Her character is a whirlwind of neuroses, unchecked aggression and bitterness, and it's kind of a brilliant performance. She would be a perfect character for a caustic comedy, so here it feels like she's been dropped in from another (altogether better) movie. As Philip, Robinson hobbles through his scenes on crutches, mainly affecting puzzlement and mild concern, while Kinnear plays the hangdog, divorced dad role fairly straight. Cox and Danner, who also seem to be in another film (The Visit: Part 2, perhaps) bring a certain conviction to their roles, and it's nice, at least, to see these two veteran actors working well together.

Take a family drama, a supernatural thriller, and a film about a peculiar older couple, and it's always going to be a difficult task successfully meshing such awkwardly disparate elements together. That the film is based on a novel comes as no surprise - these things tend to work so much better on the page than on screen.

In the end Strange But True feels uneven and, at its worst, rather silly. For fans of Ryan, you'll enjoy seeing her demented turn here, but otherwise this is too much of a clumsy mishmash to recommend.

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