Sixteen years ago, Julia Sandburg (Sigourney Weaver) lost her little daughter Maggie when she disappeared from a New York playground. Since then her estranged husband Doug (David Rasche) has moved on with his new wife and stepson, while their son Chris (Alessandro Nivola) is newly engaged to Celeste (Keri Russell) with a baby on the way, but Julia leads a sterile, lonely life in her apartment, still haunted by the past. She finds herself drawn to Louise (Kate Bosworth), a troubled young, blonde woman around the age Maggie would be. Claiming to be pregnant, Louise cons Julia out of seven hundred dollars but later returns the money out of guilt. Julia invites Louise into her home, slowly growing more convinced the orphaned runaway is her long-lost daughter, especially once she restores her natural brunette hair. As they grow closer, a spark of warmth reignites Julia’s life, even though her family increasingly suspect she has lost her mind.
While seasoned cinemagoers might suspect a retread of Vertigo (1958) territory, the manner in which The Girl in the Park actually unfolds is refreshingly humane. Playwright-turned-director David Auburn impresses with his balancing act in telling an essentially heart-warming, yet resolutely unsentimental story in an observational, almost fly-on-the-wall style. With painful accuracy, Auburn pinpoints the different ways in which people cope with tragedy. After several years of trying to rouse his wife out of her torpor, Doug has basically washed his hands of the past. Chris simmers with resentment, yet crucially remains a devoted son, while Julia initially seems a brittle wreck.
Sigourney Weaver is cinema’s great warrior-mom. Whether in Aliens (1986) or Gorillas in the Mist (1988) or Heartbreakers (2001), she is often fighting to protect her offspring. Which makes watching Julia forlornly wander the park, talking sweetly to other people’s children before police cart her away as emotionally shattering as seeing Clint Eastwood play a doddering old gunslinger who can’t shoot straight in Unforgiven (1992). Julia’s relationship with Louise develops without recourse to clichéd melodramatics, subtly re-enacting the teenage friction she missed out on with Maggie. Without providing any easy answer, Auburn stresses the traits these women share (impulsiveness, a talent for fibbing) in scenes beautifully played by Weaver and Kate Bosworth, an actress whose talent is all too often ill-served by Hollywood. Louise could have been a walking cliché, but as scripted and played proves engagingly complex: initially manipulative, but genuinely caring, grateful and affectionate. She thaws Julia’s relationship with Chris and opens her to the possibility of romance with a caring co-worker (Elias Koteas).
Bosworth enjoys one comic scene where Louise convinces Doug’s sulky stepson she is a recovering nymphomaniac, but by far her most compelling scenes are opposite Weaver. Particularly an understated moment where Julia flicks through a photo-album and innocently refers to Louise as Maggie. Though her daughter sports a birthmark upon her left leg, Julia can never bring herself to ask Louise the obvious question. Auburn keeps things ambiguous. While Julia’s family are convinced she has gone crazy, neither she nor Louise are entirely certain what the truth is. Auburn fumbles a few subplots, relying heavily on warm performances from his supporting cast to paper over the cracks, but redeems things with his daring suggestion that the truth does not really matter. Even if Julia and Louise are only strangers and not mother and daughter, their bond is something tangible, mutually positive and good.