'Stockholm, Pennsylvania': Sundance Review

Stockholm, Pennsylvania
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A problematic script with too many lapses in logic undermines some powerful acting

Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon star in Nicole Beckwith's drama about the troubled reconciliation of an abduction victim with her parents.

Strong performances from Saoirse Ronan and Cynthia Nixon keep Stockholm, Pennsylvania intense and absorbing, but Nicole Beckwith's initial impulse to tell her confinement story as a stage play feels as if it might have been a sounder choice. Grim, claustrophobic and ultimately somewhat schematic, this account of a young woman's difficult return home to her parents, almost 20 years after she was abducted, invites unfavorable comparison with Emma Donaghue's compelling 2010 novel Room, which developed far more bracing and psychologically nuanced drama out of a similar scenario of shut-ins readjusting to an unknown world.

There are parallels also to Atom Egoyan's recent clunker The Captive, which weighed the corrosive fallout of a daughter's abduction, but via plotting that lurched from ineffectual to ludicrous. Writer-director Beckwith's film is more sober, though its seriousness comes at a price when a key character's behavior spins off the rails. There's neither adequate foreshadowing nor any interest in the kind of pumped-up thriller conventions that might have made the cracked developments easier to swallow.

Playing American with ease, Irish actress Ronan is Leeane, a girl who vanished from the playground at age 4 and has grown up going by the name Leia ("after a princess"), secluded in the basement of Ben McKay (Jason Isaacs), who is now behind bars. She's first seen being driven to the childhood home she shared with her long-forgotten parents, Marcy (Nixon) and Glen Dargon (David Warshofsky), and while both greet her warmly and her mother is especially effusive, she remains brittle and standoffish.

The syndrome that gives the film its title, in which the prisoner bonds emotionally with his or her jailer, is written all over Leia in Ronan's internalized performance. She shows more signs of being traumatized by her sudden change of environment and the expectation of an instant connection with two complete strangers than she does in her careful mentions of her time with Ben.

Leia observes flashbacks of herself at various ages together with her captor, a darkly charismatic type given to spouting self-motivational maxims, and her expression suggests more tenderness than it ever does with her real folks. These are some of the movie's best scenes, as she wrestles with conflicted feelings while gradually realizing the extent to which Ben deceived her about the dangers of the world. But she remains perplexed, even hostile, when the Dargons or her counselor Dr. Andrews (Rosalind Chao) infer that Ben is a monster and her imprisonment an ordeal best forgotten.

Friction in Marcy's marriage to Glen is aggravated by his stoic insistence that the ice will melt with their daughter in time, pushing him off into the margins to make way for a protracted mother-daughter showdown.

The problem with that is the hairpin turns it requires Nixon to negotiate as Marcy, nudging her into a prison-warden role with creepy parallels to Ben. And while the ending is mildly unsettling, with Leia poised to put her learned behavior into practice, the script lacks the psychological acuity to make this and much of the fraught late action persuasive.

There's an intriguing core here involving the confusion of a 23-year-old woman who has grown up entirely cloistered from outside influences, including not only the cultural touchstones of her generation but the very basic tenets of familial love. The notion that she should resent the loss of security that comes with removal from her longtime home (she refuses to call it a basement) is a provocative dramatic point. Ronan plays this stunned, untrusting, threatened woman-child with unflinching focus, with long stretches of emotional numbness interrupted by the occasional heated confrontation.

Nixon hurls herself into her volatile role with fierce commitment, and Marcy's stubborn optimism in the face of Leia's cold shoulder in the early scenes is quite affecting. The character's increasingly loopy attempts to force an attachment can be attributed to the gnawing uncertainty of wondering for two decades if her daughter was alive, leaving her borderline unhinged and unable to move on. But she's forced to play the kind of craziness that belongs in a lurid Lifetime movie.

What really starts to nag are the plotting inconsistencies around the solving of a case depicted as a major media circus. Aside from a cluster of press and cops awaiting Leia's initial return, the family is pretty much left alone. Surely given the extreme nature of the crime and the potential for lingering psychological damage, legal and medical authorities would be showing up from time to time, beyond the weekly sessions with well-meaning Dr. Andrews. It also seems somewhat coy that there's barely any allusion to the crucial question of whether Ben sexually abused Leia.

The film's script shortcomings might have been easier to overlook if it had a little more visual life. But cinematographer Arnaud Potier makes what appears a conscious choice to dull the light and fill the frame with drab tones, using windows as a recurrent motif to explore Leia's cautious curiosity about the strange new world outside. It makes thematic sense but it also makes the movie a flat-looking dirge.

Production company: Fido Features, in association with Olympus Pictures

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon, Jason Isaacs, David Warshofsky, Rosalind Chao, Avery Phillips, Hanna Hayes

Director-screenwriter: Nicole Beckwith

Producers: Greg Ammon, Leslie Urdang, Dan Halsted

Executive producer: Paul Marini

Director of photography: Arnaud Potier

Production designer: Kathrin Eder

Costume designer: Emily Batson

Music: Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, Brian McOmber

Editor: Joe Klotz

Casting: Richard Hicks

Sales: CAA/ICM

No rating, 100 minutes.