'Strange Weather': Film Review | TIFF 2016

Strange Weather Still 2 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Strange Weather Still 2 - Publicity - H 2016

Good ingredients, flawed recipe.

Holly Hunter and Carrie Coon star in Katherine Dieckmann's drama about a Southern woman who enlists her friend to help find answers about her son's suicide.

Like Thelma & Louise, Strange Weather revolves around two Southern women, the open road and a surreptitiously packed handgun. But the similarities end there.

Ridley Scott's seminal work was electric and provocative, a vision of female friendship and freedom that thrilled and unsettled. Writer-director Katherine Dieckmann's film, premiering in Toronto and starring Holly Hunter and Carrie Coon (Gone Girl, HBO's The Leftovers) as best friends, is a sincere, somewhat clunky drama, delivering lots of Americana-infused atmosphere but little excitement or novelty.

The comparison may be unfair, but it's such a rare pleasure to see two top-notch actresses have the screen to themselves, playing smart, strong women, that we feel robbed when the movie doesn't do them justice. Where Strange Weather errs (and where Thelma & Louise did not) is in detracting from that pleasure by half-burying the main characters under unwieldy chunks of plot.

This is just the latest movie to deploy the dead-child backstory, an overused narrative device that paves a shortcut to viewers' emotions (and often to Academy members' ballots). In Strange Weather, alas, that backstory essentially becomes the whole story, as Hunter's grief-stricken protagonist Darcy Baylor embarks on a mission to find out exactly what precipitated the suicide of her grown son seven years earlier. The circumstances, she discovers (this is not a spoiler), involved a few of his close friends, a lot of cocaine and a stolen business plan for a fast-food restaurant. Darcy also was abused by her ex-husband. Oh, and Coon's character, Byrd, may be harboring a secret of her own. All of that, combined with an unsubtle central metaphor (mercurial weather as a reflection of Darcy's emotional volatility), makes for a film that feels too busy, too "written," for its own good — especially when all we really want is to watch Hunter and Coon knock back a few drinks and shoot the shit.

We first see Darcy, a hippie-ish fifty-something Georgia university administrative assistant, watering her garden in the middle of the night while smoking a cigarette. (It's something she'll do several times over the course of the film, one of those movie-ishly quirky touches that often pass for character nuance.) Byrd (Coon), her closest confidante, lives next door with her African-American girlfriend Geri (Andrene Ward-Hammond) and works at the same university, in the fundraising department.

Through the fundraising database, Byrd learns that Mark Wright (Shane Jacobsen), a former close friend of Darcy's son, is now the filthy-rich owner of a chain of customize-your-own-hot-dog eateries near New Orleans. When Byrd tells her about it, Darcy is struck by how familiar the concept sounds, and soon remembers that before he killed himself her son had pitched the exact same idea as part of a business school assignment. She grabs Byrd and the two set off to track down Mark and get some answers.

The ensuing road trip is full of familiar imagery, from the rusty pickup truck the two women ride in to the dusty backroads they travel and pit stops they make at a crumbling old gas station and roadside diner. These are visual clichés, to be sure, but Dieckmann (who made the 2009 Uma Thurman comedy Motherhood) doesn't push them too hard, and even spares us the tracking shots of big American flags protruding from decrepit houses and toothless rural folk straight out of Deliverance. The authentic-feeling Southern ambience, enhanced by Sharon Van Etten's low-key, country-inflected score, is one of the film's most potent assets.

Another is Glenne Headly's brief turn as Darcy's childhood friend Mary Lou, who hosts Darcy and Byrd when they stop for a night in Meridian, Georgia. Mary Lou's straight-shooting advice, and the giddy reminiscences she and Darcy share, are an example of what Strange Weather does best: showing women simply talking. Too bad there's so much else crowding it. Though she wrings a bit of mild suspense from the haziness surrounding the death of Darcy's son, Dieckmann overestimates our interest in the how and why of the tragedy. What we truly want to know more about is who these women are — Darcy and Byrd, but also Mary Lou and Geri — and what they mean to one another.

Whenever the movie dredges up the past, or pauses for a dramatic confrontation, it turns touchy-feely. A speech Darcy delivers to her ailing ex-husband (Johnny McPhail), for example, feels stagy and overwrought. Several other moments, as when Darcy whispers, "I'm alive," while walking away from a nemesis, are similarly on-the-nose. Even a crucial reckoning scene between Darcy and Byrd, filmed in heated close-ups as the two clash over old secrets and lies, is marred by obvious dialogue.

Hunter, sporting a Stetson and arms so wiry and muscular they look ready to snap, is vivid as ever. An actress who excels at suggesting the always-spinning wheels of a sharp mind, she's totally persuasive as a woman coming to the painful realization that the image she had of herself as a mother may not have matched the reality. Though Coon doesn't have as much to do as the sassy, supportive Byrd, she's the kind of skilled performer who can effortlessly flesh out a character beyond what's on the page. And in a key supporting role, Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy) hits some sweet notes as Darcy's steadfast on-and-off lover.

If only Strange Weather had given these people more room to breathe beyond the churning plot. For all its potential, the movie ultimately feels like a frustrating miscalculation; the ingredients are there — it's the recipe that's off.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production company: An iDeal Partners production
Cast: Holly Hunter, Carrie Coon, Glenne Headly, Kim Coates, Shane Jacobsen, Johnny McPhail, Andrene Ward-Hammond
Writer-director: Katherine Dieckmann

Producers: Jana Edelbaum, Rachel Cohen
Executive producers: Jim Reeve, Robert Halmi, Jr., Caroline Kaplan, Allene Quincy
Director of photography: David Morrison
Editor: Madeleine Gavin
Production designer: Jesika Farkas
Music: Sharon Van Etten
Costumes: Jennifer Schreck
Casting: Cindy Tolan

Not rated, 95 minutes