Rebecca Miller’s films often find their core humanity in their characters’ dysfunction: motional tumult, isolation and enmeshment, neuroses and quirky pathologies, all swirling in a messy cocktail of plot and conflict. Often these characters are seeking things like freedom, connection, and actualization, hopeful for whatever transcendent and purifying qualities will come once they finally claim what they want. Yet after watching She Came to Me’s blundering protagonist, Steven Lauddem (Peter Dinklage), for long enough, one is left to wonder: what the hell does this guy really want? Sure, a plot synopsis can superficially answer that question, but Steven remains such an inert and addled center that expecting clarity regarding his needs and motives becomes a fruitless exercise. Lack of coherency, generally speaking, is She Came to Me’s most defining flaw, as the movie never seems to know how to effectively communicate its ideas. It sits in an exasperating liminal space between comedy and drama where the undercooked elements of each contribute to a whole that’s less than any of its individual parts.
Steven is a blocked opera composer struggling to finish the score for his latest work. He lives in a tony, New York City brownstone with Patricia (Anne Hathaway), his tightly-wound former therapist and current wife. One day, when she’s had enough of his moping, she sends him out onto the streets to roam aimlessly in hopes that the lack of structure will jumpstart his creativity. Steven walks into a dive bar where he meets Katrina (Marisa Tomei), a tugboat captain whose eccentric charm disarms him. She gives him a tour of her boat, reveals she is struggling with obsessive love disorder, and then proceeds to come on to him. They sleep together and Steven leaves, soon to be struck by a bolt of inspiration. He then uses his experience with Katrina to create the tragic villain of his opera, which goes on to receive rave reviews. Katrina, having seen it, understands this to mean she is his muse and so doubles down on her fixation with him.
Miller certainly has an intriguing premise on her hands, but it’s one that is regrettably botched in execution. Paying off the premise becomes the B-plot, as going forward the narrative instead focuses on the endangered relationship between Steven’s stepson, Julian (Evan Ellison), and his girlfriend, Tereza (Harlow Jane). Their situation provides the larger dramatic stakes, though neither of their characters are written fully enough for these stretches to not feel like puzzling digressions for quite a while. In other words, She Came to Me simply has too many baggage-saddled characters for its own good. The way their stories intersect with one another’s rarely hits a revelatory note. Certain similarities and echoes are more or less noticeable — Steven and Tereza’s stepfather Trey are both writers with specific investments in the stories of others; Patricia and Tereza’s mother Magadelena both have failed former loves; allusions are made to Patricia and Katrina’s Jewish heritage — but what’s to be taken away from these connections remains frustratingly opaque. There’s a generational dividing line: the adults are all suffering from crises of purpose, all landing somewhere on the spectrum from pitiful to unlikeable, while the two teens, facing still unwritten futures, are noticeably less burdened; protecting their freedom to grow is what redeems or inspires a number of the adult characters. Perhaps if a different movie had preceded the climax, the resolution of these arcs wouldn’t feel as forced by the runtime as they do.
Back in February, She Came to Me opened the Berlinale. Miller’s latest has all the hallmarks of a slam dunk festival film: committed performances from the top-billed cast, some great cinematography courtesy of Sam Levy, evocative uses of light and color, piano scores and aspect ratio shifts, technical polish elevating indie quirk. It’s quite a shame then that these impressive bits are never put to good use, instead remaining a constant reminder of how much more engrossing this film could have been if the script didn’t attempt to stitch several movies together. In fact, She Came to Me‘s visual grammar often communicates a more sobering, reflective mood than the lines that leave characters’ mouths. How seriously are we to take Steven’s paralyzing inability to reckon with himself when we never learn why he is this way nor see any meaningful evolution in his character until the eleventh hour? Why is his arc conceived of as dramatically compelling while Patricia and Katrina, who both have known suffering and continue to do so thanks to Steven’s choices, are relegated to wacky support characters? Why does Miller’s script deliver jokes at the same decibel as its more notably upsetting material, and why does it insist that is how teenagers sound when they’re upset? Viewers can come into She Came to Me and fill in its gaps with their own rationales or let its loose haze of a story blanket them until their eyes get heavy. A much greater overhaul, however, would be necessary to cast this mélange of misfires as a legitimately successful or emotionally coherent film.
DIRECTOR: Rebecca Miller; CAST: Anne Hathaway, Peter Dinklage, Marisa Tomei, Brian d’Arcy James, Joanna Kulig; DISTRIBUTOR: Vertical; IN THEATERS: October 6; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 42 min.