Five years on from the death of older sibling Ronnie (Connor Jessup), Philip (Nick Robinson) has returned to the family home with a broken leg and a bruised ego when his brother’s pregnant ex-girlfriend (Margaret Qualley) arrives at the door with an unlikely story to tell. She believes that the unborn baby is in fact Ronnie’s, an impossible assertion that stuns Philip but incenses his mother, Charlene (Amy Ryan). While Melissa prepares for the baby’s arrival, aided by kindly godparents Bill (Brian Cox) and Gail (Blythe Danner), Philip and Charlene embark on divergent quests to prove and disprove her story respectively, leading the former to a local psychic and the latter to her estranged husband, Dr. Richard Chase (Greg Kinnear).
The second feature from director Rowan Athale and an adaptation of John Searles’ 2002 novel, Strange But True opens with a frantic and frenetic chase sequence in which an injured Philip is pursued through dense forest by an unseen assailant. When the narrative then flashes back to suburbia, two days earlier, however, there is little sense of pending danger or anything out of the ordinary at all — only familiar familial conflict, as a grieving mother and her grown son clash over everything and everything. Melissa’s talk of posthumous conception and Philip’s subsequent encounter with her psychic point to supernatural influences, but as time passes and alternative explanations are explored an explicitly paranormal gear-change becomes ever more unlikely — though prescient clues in the psychic’s reading don’t rule it out either.
Instead, Carlene’s search begins to bear fruit. Her research reveals instances of posthumous birth where the father’s sperm was frozen shortly after death, and knowing that her ex-husband was working at the hospital the night her son was killed she begins to suspect that he might have something to do with it. Ryan is terrific in the role of grieving mother, a bristling ball of nervous rage who snaps at the slightest provocation and just about explodes when Melissa re-enters her life. She is not without justification, however, and many of her outbursts don’t just release tension but ring true. A good few even raise a smirk as she lambasts those around her. As angry as she is with Melissa and Richard, it’s an enduring antagonism with a coworker at her old workplace that seems to irk her most, though as the film progresses it becomes clear that this too stems from the accident — and through the films events she finally comes to terms with her pain.
The film is brilliantly acted, with each character clearly hiding something from someone — whether its an insecurity, a smoking habit or something more insidious. The characters of Bill and Gail never quite convince, or coalesce, but this is through no fault of Cox or Danner and more likely a result of their relative distance to the main, more involving drama. Each time the film revisits the day of the accident — a prom-night tragedy that plays out in flashbacks — something new is gleaned about the family and their bond grows ever stronger. Athale has done a masterful job not just of reconfiguring Searles’ page-turner for the big screen and casting an impressive roster of talent but of exploring grief and its many interrelated emotions in a way that is honest and insightful. The flashbacks are often as cathartic as they are explanatory, and while the third act twist takes the story on something of a tangent the various arcs that have been established keep everything grounded in characters you otherwise believe in.
That’s the thing about Strange But True; as the ethereal premise begins to lose some of its mystique the characters grow more corporeal and compelling, pulling you back in. When the cast do finally converge on the forest, and the chase begins in earnest, the context might have changed but the effect is much the same. You’re gripped all over again.