Five years after the death of Ronnie Chase (Connor Jessup) – his Brother, Phillip (Nick Robinson) and their parents Charlene (Amy Ryan) and Richard (Greg Kinnear) struggle to move forward with their lives. Old wounds are reopened by the visit of Ronnie’s ex-girlfriend, Melissa, (Margaret Qualley) who shows up to the house nine months pregnant, causing a stir when she tells them she’s only ever been with Ronnie and this child she’s carrying belongs to him. Melissa, coming from a God-fearing family, has been kicked out of her parents house and was taken in by an old couple Gail (Blythe Danner) and Bill Erwin (Brian Cox), for the troubling rumours surrounding her practicing satanism. The mystery twists into something much darker and murkier as Charlene tries to uncover why Melissa would try to lie about the situation, and Philip, attempts to wrap his head around why Melissa believes her baby is Ronnie’s.
Rowan Athale’s Strange But True plays with an interesting theme about the meaning of truth. Is truth just plain old facts or is truth a little more fluid and complicated than that – is truth what we believe it is? An argument could be made for both and this film begins to address that, with Charlene searching for the scientific and logical explanations whilst Phillip searches to understand the more spiritual or psychological reasons for Melissa’s alleged pregnancy. This idea could stand as a nice metaphor for polarisation in today’s society when it comes to belief – be it political, religious or social. And the film for a while has an intriguing hook on us, as the audience, to suspend our belief. It sets up a good balance of curiosity of whether we believe there is something nefarious going on or possibly something supernatural. Sadly, that curiosity is short lived, not because of a premature reveal to the mystery but because the story then proceeds to slowly meander its way to a finale that undercuts these ideas of truth that it has been all the while setting up.
Unfortunately, problems with this film lie with the pace. The script is littered with moments of characters just “checking in” on one another, inviting these long, monotonous scenes for them to explain where they are emotionally at this point of the film rather than them showing it. Series of people calling each other on the phone, or sitting in living rooms face to face, droning out exposition and backstory yet we still never feel like we learn anything about who these characters are.
These scenes sadly are the majority of the film and they might be less unbearable if this dialogue wasn’t so clunky and clichéd. Cringeworthy expressions and curses, particularly from the most notable perpetrator being the perpetually angry Charlene, who’s character feels like a bad attempt at some Francis McDormand Three billboards, distraught mother with a foul mouth and thirst for justice for her son’s memory. Whilst her character is the most irredeemable, the rest of the characters aren’t exactly likeable or even remotely interesting as conduits for this story. This isn’t a fault of the cast, who are all giving solid performances for what they have been given. Sadly what they have been given are characters who have one tone and weak or half-baked story arcs. When a film like this so influenced by the kitchen sink drama and is predominantly made up by these heavy character-driven scenes, it’s difficult to sit through them when you ultimately don’t care for the characters.
In this age of cinema when our average films seem to run at two to two half hours, this film is a neat ninety minutes. But this film feels longer – there’s nothing wrong with a slow burn film, especially if it’s leading to a nail-biting confrontation or final act. However the pace of this movie is problematic because the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the runtime when there’s no tension, no time pressure, no stakes and no apparent antagonist. That is, until the end…
This is where the film completely derails. The pace now rather jarringly picks up in the last 20 minutes however, by this point the audience has lost interest in the characters and are soon made to lose sight of the main story, as we move into this final act that now suddenly becomes a desperate chase to hide the truth. I will leave it vague to avoid major spoilers – however this finale sends a contradicting message. Why reveal the truth to the audience when the message of the story is that the truth doesn’t actually matter. Yes, it’s frustrating to not have closure in a mystery film, of course, but this film would have been a rare example where not revealing how Melissa is pregnant would actually serve the story better.