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  Strange But True Pre-Natal Obsession
Year: 2019
Director: Rowan Athale
Stars: Nick Robinson, Amy Ryan, Greg Kinnear, Brian Cox, Margaret Qualley, Connor Jessup, Blythe Danner, Janaya Stephens, Mena Massoud, Sarah Allen, Allegra Fulton, Dipal Patel, Darryl Flatman, Noah Denver, Christy Bruce, Tennille Read, Vanessa Burns
Genre: ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Philip (Nick Robinson) and his mother Charlene (Amy Ryan) have a fractious relationship, and it's not because they don't love each other, they're simply sick of one another's company since they remind themselves of what is missing from their lives. Yes, Philip's father Richard (Greg Kinnear) moved out of the family home some time ago and remarried, but that's not the reason, it's down to the death of the elder son Ronnie five years ago, a tragedy none of them have ever gotten over. However, if that was not enough for them to suffer under, there's something else: Ronnie's girlfriend from their schooldays shows up on the doorstep one day, pregnant and claiming the baby is his...

Well, there's a conundrum and no mistake, how could the foetus still be gestating half a decade later, after the father has joined the choir invisible? You do get the answer to that in due course, but if it sounds like the hook in the blurb of your average paperback potboiler, you would not be far off as this was based on the popular novel of the same name by John Searles, the type of beach read that Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train could justifiably claim to be, even down to the revelatory twist. The format was doing very well on the page, but on film it can be too schematic to succeed, not that this prevents producers adapting them in the hope of ringing the world's box office tills.

Strange But True, which was certainly strange but was not very true, did not quite attain that cultural talking point status, it did well as a book but as a film it was not as widely released as you might have expected, going straight to streaming in most places outside of the United States. On surveying the cast list, you could express surprise, there were some big names here and some rising stars too: Margaret Qualley, who played the pregnant Melissa, was having a very good 2019, having appeared in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and hit television series Fosse/Verdon and proving herself highly adept at stealing scenes from more experienced co-stars in both those titles.

Here she was good at essaying a hard to read role, Melissa seems sincere enough, but then there's her story which is a medical impossibility - unless she has had outside help. Philip and Charlene, barely talking to each other anyway and this does not sweeten their bond, take it upon themselves to investigate separately, the son doing so while on crutches thanks to a recent accident which, come the ending foreshadowed in the first couple of minutes, appears to be established to put him at a disadvantage when he is being chased through the forest. Back at the beginning, Charlene goes back to her old place of work at the library to look up news stories on artificial insemination, for that would be a more obvious explanation for Melissa's state than some supernatural one; could she have frozen Ronnie's sperm without permission?

The actual reason is a lot more sinister, though a visit to a professional psychic halfway through would seem to be pushing this to horror territory, at least until the medium asks for a credit card at the end of the session, which places the uncertainty director Rowan Athale was capitalising upon front and centre once again. But as this wore on, you began to understand why it did not enjoy a wider release, it would have made a perfectly decent supporting feature decades ago, but standing on its own two feet saw it looking pretty small time rather than the blockbuster the cast perhaps were hoping for when they signed on. Despite that, and despite its muted tone for the first hour, once the threads were pulled together it perked up considerably and paid off its obfuscation with a very horrible explanation for what was going on, leading to an ending that may have been supposedly happy considering what had gone before, but was in effect twisted as you like. Unless you believe babies make everything better. Music by Neil Athale.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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