Reed Morano, cinematographer for a number of independent films, makes her directorial debut with the searing drama Meadowland, which screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The movie explores the intense rift that forms in the marriage of New York City school teacher Sara (Olivia Wilde) and her police officer husband Phil (Luke Wilson) following the abduction of their young son while out on a road trip.
We see them exactly one year after the boy goes missing, and even though there is a perceived attempt to return to a normal life, the emptiness and guilt has driven both parents into a deep and dark downward spiral. Phil is more grounded in his pursuit of his son’s captor, while Sarah falls further down the rabbit hole, detaching from reality and clinging to the hope that her son is still alive.
Morano proves to be remarkably gifted as a filmmaker, handling Chris Rossi’s sometimes flawed script with a nuanced touch. Here, she pulls double duty and blends his expert eye behind the lens with the moody material and finds her footing quickly. But, even her brilliant direction isn’t enough to battle Rossi’s unbalanced screenplay.
The first half-hour of the film is set-up perfectly. We start with this vibrant happy family, laughing and enjoying their car ride down a country road, before the unthinkable happens. Suddenly, the story thrusts forward a year later as the intense, immediate aftershock of losing a child disappears, and instead, we see the slow burn of grief and the damage it does to those who are left without answers. Is the child still alive? Is it still appropriate to hope for their son’s safe return?
We soon find out that this horrible crime has affected Sarah and Phil in different ways. Phil takes to support groups to handle the mounting guilt, while Sarah is teetering on the edge of sanity, so overcome with sadness that she embarks on a dangerous path of erratic and self-destructive behavior.
It’s at this point where Olivia Wilde essentially dives headfirst into the role and delivers what is easily her most knock-out performance to date. As Sarah begins to go off the rails completely, Morano’s film becomes something of a melancholy fever-dream, and Wilde’s moments of brilliance reveal themselves in the moments where she is completely on her own. Without words, her sorrow penetrates the narrative, and we wait for somebody to throw her a lifeline.
But herein lies the problem. Rossi’s script changes so quickly, and Sarah’s actions get more and more extreme, to the point that it becomes less about the loss of a child and more about one woman’s descent into madness. There are also moments that are as bewildering as they are unnecessary. The end scene of the film is such an arbitrary callback to an earlier metaphor that it made me roll my eyes.
The film is stacked with talent who only get small chances to shine. Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss shows up in a quick but memorable role as the unfit mother of a troubled child at the school where Sarah teaches. John Leguizamo also has a couple of powerful scenes as a similarly conflicted father in Phil’s support group. Juno Temple and Kid Cudi also show up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as a bickering couple Phil encounters on a noise complaint.
The great Giovanni Ribisi gets the most expanded of the co-starring nods as Phil’s black sheep brother who is staying with the couple as they deal with their grief. He and Wilde share one particularly poignant scene on a New York rooftop, that beats any starring turn I’ve seen this year.
So in the end, Meadowland is a gorgeous and moody meditation on the lasting effects of loss with flawless performances across the board, but it suffers from a disjointed narrative, but it is certainly worth your time.