Strong Central Performance isn’t enough in Unless [ADIFF 2017]
Director: Alan Gilsenan Starring: Catherine Keener, Hannah Gross Running Time: 90 minutes
Adapting the Canadian Author Carol Shields final novel Unless for the big screen was certainly going to be a challenge. The novel, the last book written by the author before her passing from breast cancer, was a sprawling story with many layers of philosophical meditation. The novel tackles gender inequality and the realistic possibilities for women, the nature of happiness as well as identification of people’s place and purpose in time. Writer/director Alan Gilsenan does a noble job of condensing these themes into a digestible cinematic format and with Catherine Keeners raw, realistic central performance Unless feels like a film with a lot on its mind. The resulting film however is never as nuanced and profound as it thinks it is, keeping the audience at an emotional distance when it should be letting them in.
Catherine Keener, plays Reta, a writer and mother of three. Their family life is rocked when her eldest daughter Hannah suddenly drops out of college and begins spending her days begging on street corners. She stops speaking, her only communication, a tattered cardboard sign with the word Goodness written on it. What prompted this sudden change? Was it voluntary or driven by something more traumatic? This opening mystery is intriguing. Hannah’s actions provide no reasoning and the family’s frustration and confusion as they scramble to try and comprehend is beautifully captured with documentary style intimacy. Futility greets Reta at every turn, her search for answers, first from professionals, then friends and finally turning to something more profound, can be frustrating to observe but her actions always feel grounded in realism.
Problems start to arise as the film progresses. Days turn to months and scene after scene we are treated to the continued outpouring of frustration and grief. It quickly becomes evident that Unless doesn’t really have a narrative or at least isn’t interested in exploring it and instead concerns itself with the philosophical underpinnings of what Hannah’s actions mean. By moving away from the film’s central mystery, the story starts to meander. Scenes become repetitive with Rita providing clunky overtly abstract narration that feels removed from the events unfolding on screen. It’s not just Rita who speaks in this way. Various characters throughout pontificate, offering metaphors to try and explain Hannah’s motivation. One such story about an Oak tree is so heavy-handed it almost tips into parody. Thankfully, Catherine Keener’s raw performance manages to keep the film grounded through these tangents.
Third act revelations only serve to frustrate the viewer further. A narrative choice to have important information revealed to characters off-screen feels like a misstep. Hannah Gross does a commendable job playing the homeless daughter but she has frustratingly little to work with. She is mainly asked to sit in silence while other characters emote around her. Unless is never her story so having her the center of the reveal lessens its impact. You can feel the film straining for profound meaning in the end but because Hannah has been a cipher the result is slight and anti-climactic.
Unless feels like two very different films fighting for domination. On the one hand it has very human performances and the director’s documentary background lends the film genuine intimacy. Toronto plays a big part in the film, and the shooting style captures the vibrant city life. This puts it at odds with the film’s other, understated elements. The script is at times heavy handed and the depiction of homeless people feels mystical and divorced from reality. All of these strands are straining in different directions. Unless wants to say something about life and its meaning but it feels slight, offering no more profundity than your average motivational Facebook post.(2 / 5)