Losing a child is an unimaginable pain, made perhaps even worse when that child is missing. Without any confirmation, as brutal as it may be, that they are truly dead and gone, the uncertainty and fear can never give way to the sort of grief that can be comprehended, and maybe even tackled. So many films use this unique kind of heartbreak as a generic backstory for a character, so it’s refreshing and vital to see a piece like Meadowland, which actually respects the gravity of its story, grounding it with consistent, understated excellence in its writing, acting, and visuals.
As a couple, played by Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson, try and fight through the days following the one year anniversary of the kidnap of their young son, a recent film that Meadowland draws obvious comparisons to is the Nicole Kidman-starring Rabbit Hole. Luckily, Meadowland is leagues ahead of that ultimately mawkish effort, eschewing cheap outbursts and histrionics in favour of brutal realism. After leaving you drained in just its first four minutes with the actual child-losing scene, director Reed Morano and writer Chris Rossi understand that the residual power of that moment allows for the rest of the film to play its hand quietly.
Giving plenty of depth to even its supporting characters, Meadowland is firmly anchored by the never better Wilde and Wilson, impossibly sad, exhausted, and furious. Initially it seems that Phil (Wilson) is the one responding in the more expected ways to the couple’s shared grief, but as both he and Sarah (Wilde) start to spiral, this is put to a gruelling test. With this darkness, there is little room for levity, but that’s not to say that there’s a complete absence of light. When Phil’s apparently deadbeat brother (Giovanni Ribisi) comes to stay, we (alongside Sarah and Phil) guess that he’s just sponging, but it soon becomes clear that he’s come to offer solace.
As a no judgements/no pressure shoulder to cry on, his mere presence allows his brother and sister-in-law to work through things that they would never dare say to one another. It doesn’t mean that the couple’s self-destructive streak comes to an end – throughout the film, they repeatedly revisit the gas station where their child was taken in a horrible example of psychological masochism – but serves as a touching reminder of a family’s ability to heal one another. This is never spelled out explicitly in the script, and the lack of grand revelations and histrionics only heightens the believability of the story.
Elsewhere, we see John Leguizamo as a bereaved father who wants nothing more than to have his hate for his daughter’s killer outweigh the everyday feelings of loneliness and powerlessness, as well as Elisabeth Moss and Kevin Corrigan as unfit parents who want to be better, but know they never will be. It’s such a fully drawn ensemble cast that the fact that the film is around 100 minutes long is a genuine surprise.
Olivia Wilde is absolutely fantastic as Sarah, nailing the physical toll of ceaseless sorrow without resorting to the typical fireworks. It’s one of those rare performances in a serious drama where you can’t see the effort of the acting – Wilde simply inhabits this tragic person and draws the audience into her world. This world is occasionally infringed upon by some overly self-conscious stylisation and a couple of story beats with an in-care kid that Sarah takes under her wing ring false, but these gambles eventually pay off in two genuinely beautiful sequences.
The first is a boldly and insightfully honest look at physical self-harm, the likes of which we very rarely see in films. Not only does it present the build up to and the act itself unsparingly without being gratuitous and exploitative, but with ingenious visuals, Morano shows us exactly what the self-harmer gets out of it. She does not glorify nor vilify the choice, and the impact is enormous. What might prove more divisive is the second of these climactic scenes – which I personally loved – involving an encounter with an elephant by the side of the freeway.
It’s a surreally lovely moment that may or may not take place in reality, but the atmosphere created in the preceding 80 minutes ensures that this scene feels of a piece with all that has come before, even as the stark verisimilitude that defines much of the rest of the film slowly, and deliberately, crumbles away. It’s hope delivered from the most unlikely source, a wonderful image that, like much of Meadowland, burrows deep into your brain, unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry.