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A bracingly icy drama, and not just because it’s set during a Canadian winter, The Lie proposes that the supposedly pure love parents feel for the children can edge into ruthless self-preservation in a snap. Peter Sarsgaard and Mireille Enos star as a separated couple forced to dissemble and synchronize their stories when their teenage daughter (Joey King, holding her own admirably) confesses to a terrible crime.
Based on the German film Wir Monster (We Monsters) that played TIFF a few years back, this bleak little chamber piece represents another work of adaptation/reinterpretation for writer-director Veena Sud, who also created the English-language version of the Danish crime drama The Killing. Also on board is Jason Blum, who produced Whiplash and Get Out. Although The Lie offers an impressively assembled package, the uncomfortably caustic view of parenthood, channeled through characters many viewers, particularly in North America, are likely to dismiss with that most commercially damning of descriptors, “unlikable,” may keep The Lie from breaking out of niche distribution.
Neatly slipped in lines of explicatory dialogue reveal that corporate lawyer Rebecca (Enos) and professional rock musician Jay (Sarsgaard) split up not long ago, seemingly over his infidelities, probably with younger women judging by the looks of his current girlfriend. His and Rebecca’s only child, 15-year-old Kayla (King), lives mostly with her mother, the parent who remembers to nag about homework and always keeps track of Kayla’s asthma inhaler, while Jay gets to be the fun parent. As the film opens, Jay has promised to drive Kayla to a weekend retreat organized by Kayla’s ballet school, and on the way there through icy, snow-covered roads, Kayla spots her friend Brittany (impression-making Devery Jacobs) waiting at a bus stop. She insists they give the girl a lift, but as soon as Brittany gets in the car she starts flirting with Jay, much to Kayla’s disgust, and the two teens start bickering, putting on a fine display of the sort of fractious, bitchy, passive-aggression that is often the currency between teenage girls.
When they insist on stopping in the middle of nowhere for a pee and are way too long, Jay comes looking for them and finds Kayla sitting on a bridge railing over a rushing river, alone and in shock. Kayla says that she and Brittany had a fight, and in a fit of anger she pushed Brittany into the river. The girl is nowhere to be seen, and judging by the height of the drop, Jay reckons she will either have broken her neck in the fall or drowned in the water below. He makes a cursory attempt to look for Brittany by the water, but gives up. Figuring that admitting to the killing will probably end up ruining Kayla’s life, he persuades her to just pretend they never picked Brittany up in the first place. It’s this questionable decision from Jay, made seemingly out of love for Kayla but perhaps also with a dash of fear about how a confession of the truth will affect him, too, that will have immense repercussions.
Instead of going on to ballet camp, he tells her to claim she’s feeling sick and takes her back to the city. Rebecca quickly susses out that something is terribly wrong and is let in on the secret. The fact that she decides to go along with the cover-up reveals that despite her tastefully beige dress sense, she’s not so dissimilar to Jay and his willingness to bend the rules. But soon Brittany’s dad (Cas Anvar) comes looking for his missing kid, and wanting to ask Kayla if she’s seen her, and Jay and Rebecca decide to go to even more shocking lengths to divert suspicion from their child and onto Brittany’s dad himself.
While all this is going on and the stakes keep escalating, Kayla seems weirdly numb, perhaps even indifferent to her crime, and happily laughs at cartoons on TV and makes breakfast with the untroubled manner of a privileged rich kid. Both her parents and maybe viewers, too, start to wonder if she’s some kind of teenage sociopath, like the little girl in the 1950s novel The Bad Seed, or just a “typically” morally numb teenager, a product of overindulgent parenting, or principle-eroding modern culture. Maybe they should blame it on the ballet.
Whatever the case may be, Sud, Sarsgaard and Enos collaborate to produce all-too convincing a portrait of the scratchy, vicious arguments that can erupt between estranged partners, especially when old grudges are as hard to forget as feelings of love and desire. Playing off intense, uncomfortably tight close-ups where the actors show off finely tuned displays of flickering emotions with long shots that emphasize the plush interiors and tidy suburban gardens that surround them, Sud ratchets up the tension expertly. The cruel twists of irony ultimately give the pic the air of a good European noir film, perhaps pointing to the story’s roots in director Sebastian Ko’s original feature, although one could easily believe that the predecessor had been a film made by Claude Chabrol, inspired by a work of Alfred Hitchcock’s. All in all, The Lie feels like one of those OG psychological thrillers that folks just don’t make enough of any more.
Production company-distributor: Blumhouse Productions
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Mireille Enos, Joey King, Cas Anvar, Devery Jacobs, Patti Kim, Nicholas Lea
Director-screenwriter: Veena Sud
Producers: Jason Blum, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Christopher Tricarico
Executive producers: Jeanette Volturno, Couper Samuelson, Aaron Barnett, Howard Green, Kim Hodgert
Director of photography: Peter Wunstorf
Production designer: Elisa Sauve
Costume designer: Leslie Kavanagh
Editor: Philip Fowler
Casting: John Buchan, Jason Knight, Sarah Domeier Lindo, Terri Taylor
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentation)
Sales: Blumhouse Productions
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