Blu-ray Review: Strange But True (2019)

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"The last thing," that Amy Ryan's grieving mother Charlene wants "to hear is how goddamn happy" the girlfriend of her deceased son is, especially when five years after his death, the very pregnant young woman, Melissa Moody (Margaret Qualley), shows up at her door wanting to talk.

Convinced by her other son Philip (Nick Robinson) to go and hear her out, she begrudgingly follows him first into the living room and then later the bedroom of the deceased Ronnie (played in flashbacks by Connor Jessup), where Melissa plays them a recording of her recent session with a spiritual adviser who informed her that her baby is part of Ronnie.

Telling them that she's only ever been with one man in her entire life, she gazes at them in earnest and, with hope they decidedly do not share, reveals that Ronnie is the father of her child. Not wanting to listen to any more of the girl's claims — whether goddamn happy or sad — Charlene looks right at Philip and with a pained edge to her voice that could chop the room in half, tells him to "get her out of my house."

A psychological domestic drama that longs to be a thriller (and eventually morphs into one in the final act), Strange is the sophomore feature from Wasteland aka The Rise director Rowan Athale. Written by novelist turned screenwriter Eric Garcia, Strange But True was adapted by the writer from the eponymous book by John Searles, who shares in a fascinating making-of documentary included on the recent Blu-ray release that something similar to Melissa's visit — minus the immaculate conception from the grave — had happened to his family that inspired the mystery.

And overall, it's a film that has a lot in common with that aforementioned early scene which sets everything in motion. For while Strange starts out by asking a lot of philosophical questions about the possibility of an afterlife and/or God in a voice-over as though it aims to seek spiritual guidance alongside the guileless Melissa, eventually it settles into a Philip-like rhythm of wait and see . . . before finally giving into a goddamn clear-cut suspenseful resolution worthy of Charlene.

Serving its phenomenal cast well as a strong dramatic showcase for the actors involved, Strange But True is anchored by that fiery trio and provides proof once again (and after the recent Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) that Andie MacDowell's daughter Margaret Qualley is the real deal. But the further we get into Strange, the more excited we become by the addition of more character actors including Brian Cox, Blythe Danner, and Greg Kinnear as the film oh so slowly accelerates towards its thrilling conclusion.

Yet even though the cast is there to reel you in, Athale and Garcia struggle with not only the pacing of the picture but also are unable to decide upon precisely which tone it is that they wish to strike. We watch with interest as Charlene investigates the veracity of Melissa's claim. As she looks into the possibility of freezing sperm after death, Philip tracks down the same psychic Melissa visited, while, of course, going through the exact same existential crisis over how to deal with grief that has impacted all who knew Ronnie.

Torn over whether or not it's supposed to be a straight up mystery or if Strange should indulge in some of the . . . well, strange new age elements inherent in Qualley's announcement, the filmmakers try to do both by opting for an everything and the kitchen sink approach.

Although it might just lose viewers hoping for a more faith driven storyline (or those who might very well drop off during its admittedly dull second act), it's nonetheless an ambitious if muddled effort. Adhering to its novelistic origins in its use of foreshadowing, the film contains some lovely little plot echoes as Charlene recounts the events of a memory that then seems to happen the exact same way to Melissa. And from the very beginning, when these symbolic moments work, they undeniably elevate the film.

However, the movie is at its most compelling when it finally embraces the genre of suspense and gives its dynamic cast something of real consequence to do. Never quite able to nail the balancing act required in telling a story about how hard it is to cope with grief while also adding a mystery to the proceedings, even when Strange But True loses its way, with Amy Ryan, Margaret Qualley and company at the helm, we remain goddamn happy to follow them anywhere.

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