Official selection of AFI Fest 2020
WANDER DARKLY— 3 STARS
Many existential movies that kick around the questions of life, death, and afterlife dangle the idea of revision. From It’s a Wonderful Life to The Tree of Life, characters alive, dead, or somewhere in-between are presented visions or exercises of how their lives could have been different with wholesale changes or tangential opportunities. Those musings often steer them to accepting their life as it was, pitfalls and all. The new drama Wander Darkly from Tara Miele working the festival circuit goes there not with an eraser, but with a red pen instead. Channeling my school teacher day job, Wander Darkly, in an interesting way, is about proofreading life more than revising it.
Adrienne and Matteo (Sienna Miller and Diego Luna) are a pair of progressive Los Angelenos who are not married, but share a new baby girl. Initially, they thought a baby would bring them closer together for a long-term relationship, but the struggle to make ends meet and the rigors of parenting have sapped their strength and snuffed much of their spark. Even a cool city date night becomes a contentious excuse of something cheaper than therapy and ends up being filled by petty arguments that argue the point of even being together.
LESSON #1: LEVELS OF EXISTENTIAL MYSTERY— Suddenly, a severe auto accident mangles the night, the couple, and any energy to heal their strife. From there, the orchestration of rising talent Alex Weston (The Farewell) begins and Wander Darkly shatters into storytelling shards matching the broken windshield glass. Adrienne appears to flatline in the emergency room, and what could be her uncoupled spirit begins to meander spaces unseen to others. She is unconvinced of whether she is alive or dead. No one appears to see her until Matteo does, talking her down from jumping into traffic on an overpass.
Doorways and character movements become transitions through time that grip Adrienne to painful confusion. Flower cinematographer Carolina Costa’s intimate and often-handheld camerawork shifts to match the extremely clever editing of Tamara Meem (I Smile Back) and Alex O’Flinn (The Rider) to achieve this jostled storytelling effect. Matteo becomes a guide for Adrienne as cycles through little impacts and re-examined rewinds of their shared time together.
LESSON #2: I’LL HELP YOU TELL YOUR STORY— Though unmarried and suffering through a rough patch, the two have undoubtedly formed each other’s lives and relationship roles for better or worse. Adrienne and Matteo, like many couples young or old, come to define each other. In this journey, revisited cornerstone events are bent by what she feels versus what she remembers. The two playback, recreate, and compare their evaluative thoughts of their formative quality time and their worst mistakes in order to best understand their combined story.
Splintered as Wander Darkly may flow and feel, the flickers of its romantic moments are quite touching and even border on devastating because death is looming overhead as its catalyst. Sienna Miller has found a pigeon-holed wheelhouse for years of playing overwrought to perfection playing one-too-many long-suffering spouses. This lead spot feels bolder and better than the material she’s normally saddled with, and the actress makes the most of it. Diego Luna is phenomenal, countering Miller’s fraying nerves with patient and conversational affection in one of his most alluring roles of his career. Two are excellent together exuding their characters’ growth for maturity and readiness with their connection.
LESSON #3: GRIEF THAT QUESTIONS DEATH— Wander Darkly uniquely begs several questions of the viewer. If it could, how would your life flash before your eyes before dying? What would you see or not see before you go? What were you present for and what were you not? Who would be in those visions living in your head? In the end, what would convince you of your eventual fate and what would not?
The enigma of it all is quite a challenge, one worthy to attempt. Wander Darkly an impressive venture for writer-director Tara Miele, working on a larger platform and her biggest effort yet since The Lake Effect ten years ago and TV work along the way. The movie weeps with a personal touch to it all from everyone involved. Those who have lost can best convey it to others. Some will envelope themselves in this shared dread and see beauty while others will dismiss every swerve of downer melodrama. To weave demanding love throughout this painful ordeal is more of a testament to the former over the latter.