Based on a popular novel (that I unfortunately haven’t read) by Carol Shields, ‘Unless’ makes broad attempts at the profound rooted in the everyday, but sadly ends up feeling merely mundane and disappointing. The movie was made by folks with talent and ambition, but what worked on the page feels flat and disappointing on screen, coming across as forced when it strives for naturalism.
Catherine Keener and Matt Craven star as Reta and Tom, a seemingly perfect suburban couple living in a happy home with three loving daughters they adore. Then one day everything changes. Their college age daughter Norah (Hannah Gross) is unexpectedly spotted sitting in the middle of the street holding a large sign that says “Goodness.” She dropped out of school and lives in a women’s shelter. She won’t speak, refusing to even acknowledge her parents when they stop to see her. This obviously puts Reta and Tom into a panic. They blame themselves for what happened and inevitably engage in longwinded conversations about the nature of “goodness” and whether or not they were able to provide such a thing for themselves or their daughter.
This is both a unique setup and the type of quiet family drama that’s been seen endlessly before. Writer/director Alan Gilsenan (who previously worked primarily in documentaries) attempts to keep the somewhat surreal story as grounded and simple as possible. He shoots almost entirely on location and rarely heightens the drama through style or visuals. Instead, the actors take central focus, and they are all quite strong.
In particular, Keener is ideally cast. Her crackling voice always feels on the edge of total collapse. The bulk of the film is focused on the parents’ brooding, pain and concern. It’s like one long feature-length family meltdown playing out in excruciating slow motion and pausing only for lengthy moral debates. That’s not exactly thrill-a-second entertainment, but it certainly could have been potent and powerful under the right conditions.
Unfortunately, the movie never quite gets inside the heads of the characters that Gilsenan tries so hard to render as real. The long and open discussions of the themes of the story become very distracting very quickly, boarding on pretentious. It’s the sort of dialogue that might work on the page, but feels far too much like the filmmakers preaching to their audience on-screen, especially when the script is shot in such a naturalistic manner. As a result, the third act revelations that are designed to be emotionally devastating never register in a satisfying manner.
No matter how hard the actors try, it’s difficult to consider the characters as genuine humans rather than blatant symbols and expressions of ideas and ideology. Once that happens, the bubble of realism collapses and the tale feels more like an essay on human nature than a human story. It becomes a slog and none of the big dramatic moments register. A rather unfortunate visual effects sequence takes a horrific moment and transforms it into a cheap cartoon.
The film has some intriguing notions in play and one fantastic Catherine Keener performance desperately attempting to hold it all together. Sadly, in the end, ‘Unless’ never works as a whole. It’s not a complete disaster, but it never hits the ambitions the filmmakers intended.