Tara Miele’s new film is a mismatched metaphysical love story that shows potential for the writer/director but doesn’t land.
Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are miserable together, that much is immediately clear. They snipe at each other over the course of their date night, a substitute for therapy they can’t afford that of course Matteo has forgotten about. They have a new baby at home and a new mortgage and a lot of old, festering issues that all seem to be bubbling to a head when the unthinkable happens. A car careens into theirs, cutting their argument short, killing Adrienne. Probably. She thinks. She… isn’t exactly sure.
Reality and time are slippery things in writer/director Tara Miele’s new feature, Wander Darkly, but so is the film’s grasp of its characters and drama itself. The movie ends up feeling like a jumble of Undone and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but without the firm roots that ground those narratives.
Instead, all we have to grasp onto before things start spinning out into the realm of fantasy or sci-fi are the chemistry-less performances of our stars. Miller and Luna produce dependable work here, but there’s something about the two of them that falls flat. It’s hard to tell exactly why we should care about them or what we really want to happen to them. Are we rooting for them to stay together? Are we watching them finally say goodbye? Part of that is because we don’t really know anything about what Adrienne wants.
When we meet her, she’s more or less done with her relationship with Matteo, and it’s kind of hard to see how that’s a bad thing. The two are at odds, they aren’t married, and while they have a child together, I can’t imagine arguing that they absolutely need to stick it out.
After the accident, Adrienne’s out-of-body experiences complicate things. She sees herself lying dead on the gurney only to snap back to her home where she’s asleep on the couch. For a moment, we wonder if it was all just a dream until she walks through her own funeral. Snap back again, and Matteo is shaking her out of her dreamwalking, insisting she’s alive. So is she dead? Dreaming? Or just losing her mind?
As a grounding exercise, Matteo decides to walk her through the story of their relationship and the movie continually flits back and forth between the past and the present, never really making clear which of the two is more real. But while this couple may be sliding effortlessly through time and space, the same can’t be said for the experience of watching them.
In Eternal Sunshine, it’s clear that we’re deep inside Joel’s mind for much of the film, which appropriately colors our interpretations of Clementine’s behavior when we see her there. It’s understood that Joel’s memories are both completely real and also his memories, not an objective truth. We know exactly what he wants and we understand exactly how and why that changes over the course of the film. He wants to forget his ex completely but, in the process of doing so, he remembers why he loved her in the first place. That’s what makes it work—it’s how we can follow the messy world of someone else’s mind, and it’s a perfect example of the kind of clarity missing from Wander Darkly.
The movie ends up feeling like a jumble of Undone and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but without the firm roots that ground those narratives.
Because Adrienne isn’t merely remembering her relationship, she’s learning brand new information about it as she goes along with Matteo. He shows her things from his point of view, shares truths she never knew at the time. It’s part of the film’s way of leaving us wondering exactly what is happening to Adrienne. But it also means it’s impossible to tell how we’re supposed to interpret these scenes. If Adrienne is dead, is her ghost conversing with Matteo? Is she in purgatory? Is Matteo confiding in her, or is she merely inventing what she wishes he would say?
That there can be a question that perhaps none of these conversations, these memories with Matteo, might be real renders a lot of it kind of meaningless. If not meaningless, it’s exceedingly difficult to become invested in.
Ultimately, Miele would have had a stronger feature if she’d told this story in a more straightforward way. There are pieces there, but Wander Darkly tries so hard to create a swell of emotion and a vibe that it doesn’t do the best job of telling the story. In fact, it’s practically drowning in the over-the-top score by Alex Weston (The Farewell), but no amount of weepy, intense strings can make you feel something when the story doesn’t give you enough of a reason to.
Wander Darkly isn’t a disaster by any stretch, but it doesn’t work, either. Hopefully, though, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Miele, whose direction definitely shows promise. Let’s just hope her next feature is a little less messy.
Wander Darkly opens on VOD this Friday, December 11.