By David Dent
Rowan Athale’s second feature is one of the finest, most taut thrillers I’ve seen this year. We meet Philip (Nick Robinson), a young man who lives with his divorced and very bitter mother, Charlene (Amy Ryan). We learn that Philip’s brother Ronnie (Connor Jessup) was killed in a car accident five years previously, which has left the family devastated.
The pair receive a visit from Melissa, Ronnie’s former girlfriend (Margaret Qualley), who is heavily pregnant. She is well received by Philip but not by his mother, who still holds her responsible for what happened to Ronnie (she was in the same car but not driving). Melissa gives them the news that her pregnancy is inexplicable: the only man she has slept with was Ronnie, and after visiting a psychic she strongly believes that the baby is his. Strange but true indeed.
Charlene accesses the library where she used to work and investigates the subjects of freezing sperm from a deceased person and about artificial insemination. Her ex-husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a fertility doctor and was on call the night that Ronnie was brought into the hospital. She suspects that her ex may be involved, particularly when she finds out that he’s been paying the rent on the cottage where Melissa lives, a property owned by Melissa’s guardians, Bill (Brian Cox, recently seen in, oh, just about everything) and Gail (Blythe Danner, also known as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mum).
If that feels like I’ve given away the plot, don’t worry – that’s just the first act. Strange But True has a lot more surprises in store, but what makes this such a class watch is the combination of great characterisation, teeth grinding tension and a big dollop of emotional heart pulling too: the story of Ronnie’s demise is gradually unveiled throughout the film, carefully interspersed with the other story strands, leading to a heartbreaking conclusion.
The starry cast is all excellent, as you would expect from such a lineup, but special mention should go to Amy Ryan who conveys Charlene’s anger and grief with absolute conviction. This is first-rate stuff, and well worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time.