An atmospheric thriller with a noir-ish undertow and strong visual style, Strange But True puts a classy spin on familiar ingredients. The twist-heavy, logic-bending plot will test audience patience in places, but the whole package is handsomely crafted and rich in strong performances from a seasoned ensemble cast led by Amy Ryan, Brian Cox, Blythe Danner and Greg Kinnear.
World-premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Rowan Athale's second feature is an international affair. Adapted from a 2002 John Searles novel, it was filmed in Canada by a young Brit director with a mostly American cast. A superior B-movie at heart, it has ready-made appeal for genre-friendly festivals and ample box office potential with the right word-of-mouth buzz behind it. No release date is yet confirmed, but CBS Films picked up U.S. distribution rights last year.
Strange But True is founded on an audacious puzzle. Five years after the tragic death of her high-school sweetheart Ronnie (Connor Jessup) during an eventful prom-night date, Melissa (Margaret Qualley, Fosse/Verdon) turns up unannounced to inform the dead boy's family that she is miraculously pregnant with his baby. Ronnie's embittered, grief-scarred mother Charlene (Ryan) dismisses the mentally fragile Melissa as delusional, angrily sending her away. But both she and her surviving son Philip (Nick Robinson) are sufficiently intrigued to investigate further, exploring possible angles from frozen sperm to occult ritual.
The plot thickens when Charlene contacts her semi-estranged ex-husband Richard (Kinnear), a hospital surgeon who was on duty the night Ronnie died. Richard has since made a new life for himself in Florida with his younger second wife, but Charlene is shocked to discover he has kept up clandestine contact with Melissa. It soon becomes clear that everyone in Strange But True has murky motives and double lives. Even the kindly old couple who have essentially adopted Melissa as a surrogate daughter, avuncular retired cop Bill (Brian Cox) and his sunny wife Gail (Danner), appear to be guarding shady secrets behind their wholesome Norman Rockwell facade.
Unfolding like a slow-motion striptease, Strange But True maintains a steady mood of creeping tension with fragmentary flashbacks and drip-feed revelations that gradually fill in the bizarre backstory behind Melissa's immaculate conception. The suspenseful setup is rich in clues, hinting at secret trysts, religious cults and supernatural interventions. The truth, once it finally emerges, is disappointingly prosaic, falling back on lurid crime-thriller tropes that stretch credibility by transforming mild-mannered characters into murderous monsters.
This clumsy tonal shift into gothic melodrama weakens the film, but not fatally. Whatever the plausibility of its baroque plot twists, Strange But True features fine-grained performances across the board, especially from the older castmembers. Ryan delivers some great diva lines with pleasingly caustic force, while Danner expertly conveys mounting panic behind her surface serenity. Cox is often guilty of hammy bombast, especially when attempting a hit-and-miss American accent, but he does unusually subtle work here.
Impressively assured for such an inexperienced director, Athale elevates Eric Garcia's screenplay with arresting visual flourishes and a strong command of mood. Held back until the finale, the dreamy flashbacks to Ronnie's death invest Strange But True with a haunting lyricism that transcends its occasionally overcooked plot.