At one point, a character in the Los Angeles-set feature Wander Darkly wonders what it was they did to deserve “spending an eternity on the 10 freeway.” The line is funnier when you realize that, on one level, that’s what might literally be happening in this dreamy drama about a character recently killed in a car crash, hovering on the porch of the afterlife, not quite ready to cross over.
The fourth feature by writer-director Tara Miele (anorexia drama Starving in Suburbia, as well as that viral short Meet a Muslim) is surprisingly droll at times, which is just as well because profound loss is right at the heart of the story. Long relegated to playing the pretty wife or girlfriend on the sidelines, Sienna Miller here plays the main protagonist, as she did in last year’s American Woman. Once again she displays impressive range — here, as a woman watching her life flash before her eyes and reviewing what went wrong in her relationship with the father of her child, played by a fetching Diego Luna.
When first met, Adrienne (Miller), a gallerista, and her partner, artisanal woodworker Matteo (Luna), are barely holding it together as a couple, and maybe only just because they have a 6-month-old daughter, Ellie. Anxious about money now that they’ve bought a house they can barely afford, and frayed by lack of sleep like all new parents, they’ve agreed to have regular date nights in lieu of couple’s therapy, which they couldn’t afford anyway.
At a party one evening, tempers flare, particularly when Adrienne talks to an ex-boyfriend (Tory Kittles). When Matteo confronts her about it in the car on the way home, she throws back in his face her suspicions that he’s slept with a mutual acquaintance. The back-and-forth of their bickering settles into a rhythmic patter that’s almost lulling when — blam! — another car collides with theirs and, within an edit or two, blood is pooling fast under the vehicle.
A few drone shots of majestic landscapes and a change of lighting are enough to suggest that Adrienne has passed over into another state of being. Now out of her body, she seems able to move through time frames as well as walls in near-seamless dissolves, impressively executed via tight choreography and Tamara Meem and Alex O’Flinn’s nimble editing. One moment she’s seeing into a future where Ellie is an unhappy teenager, being raised by Adrienne’s overbearing mother (Beth Grant) with Matteo nowhere in sight. In a blink, she’s back in the moment when she first met Matteo and they fell in love, a courtship that they live through and at the same time seem to narrate from their present-day perspective, laughing at how neither of them was equipped with a condom when the moment arrived to have sex for the first time.
The fact that they don’t necessarily remember things the same way drops a big hint that not everything here is what it seems, and Miele’s script adroitly plants clues and little ironic quips along the way — as when Adrienne explains that she loves zombies because those are her people. As in so many of the death-after-life or memory-centric films it lightly references — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, It’s a Wonderful Life, Heaven Can Wait, to name but a few — there’s arguably too much emphasis on neat patterns, seemingly throwaway details that turn out to have major payoffs later on. It’s not that these films are necessarily religious, but they all seem to be arguing that there’s some kind of higher logic shaping our ends, giving meaning to existence, like an invisible screenwriter nudging the characters toward an eternal epiphany.
Some may find this a path too well trodden by other movies, but what’s refreshing is to see it through the eyes of a female protagonist for a change. Even better, Miele and Miller aren’t afraid to make Adrienne a bit of a bitch, hypercritical and flawed as well as fragile, while Luna’s Matteo is the saintly, seemingly too-good-to-be-true love interest, a switcheroo that gives the final denouement an added piquancy.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: 51 Entertainment, ShivHans Pictures
Cast: Sienna Miller, Diego Luna, Vanessa Bayer, Beth Grant, Aimee Carrero, Ayden Mayeri, Tory Kittles, Brett Rice, James Landry Hébert
Director-screenwriter: Tara Miele
Producers: Lynette Howell Taylor, Samantha Housman, Shivani Rawat, Monica Levinson
Executive producers: Mark David Katchur, Connor Flanagan
Director of photography: Carolina Costa
Editors: Tamara Meem, Alex O’Flinn
Production designer: Katie Byron
Costume designer: Christopher Lawrence
Music: Alex Weston
Music supervisor: Andrea von Foerster
Casting: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy
Sales: Endeavor Content