This year’s most popular movie theme — memory — turns up once again, though this time what someone, um, forgot was the script.
Oh there are situations here, but I would not say that they rise to the level of a story, and some people, but I would not say they rise to the level of characters, and those people say some words, but I would not say they rise to the level of dialogue.
It is autumn, a time of loss, and Telly (Julianne Moore) sits in the playground watching the leaves fall. She is mourning her son Sam, who died along with five other children on a plane to summer camp fourteen months before. She tells her therapist, Dr. Munce (Gary Sinise), that she still spends time every day going through Sam’s dresser drawer, watching him in home movies on video, looking at him in photographs. Dr. Munce tells her that it’s just “memory, doing its job.”
But sometimes memory doesn’t do its job very well. Telly remembers having a cup of coffee, but it is not there and Dr. Munce says that it was the last session where she had coffee, not this one. Telly’s car is not where she thought she left it and the man who finds it for her tries to reassure her: “I forget all the time.” But Telly can’t forget. She thinks of Sam every minute. Dr. Munce tells her that “sometimes the mind needs help in letting a thing go.” But Telly does not want help. She had to let Sam go, but she cannot let her memories of him go.
Is her husband Jim (Anthony Edwards) trying to help her by removing the pictures of Sam and erasing the videos? “When the images are gone,” she tells him, “it’s like losing him all over again.”
But then he tells her something shocking. There never was a Sam. Telly has been mentally ill, suffering from “paramnesia” since her miscarriage. Jim and Dr. Munce have been trying to lead her gradually back to reality.
All external evidence of Sam has disappeared. His baseball glove is no longer in the dresser and the pages of teh scrapbook are blank. No one remembers him, not even Ash (Dominic West), a former hockey player and the father of Sam’s friend Lauren, who was also on that plane. Ash insists that he has never met Telly and never had a child. She cannot even find a newspaper story about the loss of the airplane with the six children.
Who should Telly believe? She trusts her husband and her doctor. She cannot find anyone who believes her or any evidence that Sam ever existed. But somehow she believes what she remembers — the way Sam waved at her as he boarded the plane, the way she felt when she saw the sun on his hair — even though it seems to make no sense.
So far, so good. And the movie does a pretty good job of creating the atmosphere early on, keeping us as unbalanced and unsure of what to believe as Telly is. Plus, it turns out that if you’re dealing with bad guys, a former hockey player is a handy guy to have around. Ash seems very happy to have the chance to go at it without any penalty box in sight.
But then the plot goes off in a direction that is so nutty, even by movie standards, that it is just plain silly, leaving so many holes in the plot that it knocks us out of that nice creepy atmosphere and into oh-come-off-it-land. It feels like the screenwriters had no idea where to go and so just randomly spun the wheel of movie genres to pick an ending. They should have spun again.
Parents should know that the movie has frequent tense scenes with characters in peril and some startling surprises. The plot concerns the death of six children and other characters are injured and apparently killed. There are brief frightening images and a few bad words. A character abuses alcohol.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we know whether our memories are accurate. What can we do to make sure we remember the things that are important to us?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy two other movies where characters are told that family members never existed, So Long at the Fair and Bunny Lake is Missing. They will also enjoy The Invisible Child a sweet little made-for-television film with a lovely performance by Rita Wilson as a mother who has an imaginary child and whose husband, children, and nanny all help perpetuate the fantasy. And they will enjoy the classic Gaslight with an Oscar-winning performance by Ingrid Bergman as a woman whose husband persuades her that her memory cannot be trusted.