Runtime: 102 minutes
Written and directed by Rebecca Miller
Actors: Anne Hathaway, Marisa Tomei, Peter Dinklage, Joanna Kulig, Brian d’Arcy James, Evan Ellison, Harlowe Jane, Dale Soules
By Sarah Manvel
“She Came to Me” is an old-fashioned movie in the best possible way. What we have here is a stacked cast including two Oscar winners, an unusual setting in a familiar location (Brooklyn), a cleverly intertwined plot for which every character is essential, and an understanding of human nature in all its messy glory. Every single element of the plot is a surprise, and no part of the story could unfold without the characters being exactly who they are.
Steven (Peter Dinklage) is married to Patricia (Anne Hathaway), his former therapist who by marrying him has basically taken over his sense of self. He is an opera composer, still unrecovered from a nervous breakdown some years ago, and only able to function at all because Patricia has him on a strict regime of pills. Patricia also has a 18-year-old son, Julian (Evan Ellison), who she had while still in medical school. Julian is completely in love with the slightly younger Tereza (Harlow Jane) from his science class. Tereza’s mother, the equally young Magdalena (Joanna Kulig) and stepfather Trey (Brian D’Arcy James) don’t know about Julian, until Magdalena takes a new cleaning job working for guess who. In addition, one day Steven is forced by Patricia to take a dog for a walk. He is so unable to make his own decisions he lets the dog choose the route and ends up in a waterfront bar, where he meets Katrina (Marisa Tomei), who owns her own tugboat. They get to chatting and she invites Steven for a tour. Guess what happens next.
The unpredictable nature of every single character twists the plot into something that tries a little too hard to be quirky. Katrina has a tendency to get over-involved with her flings, which has led to some light arrests and a stint in rehab, but she just can’t help herself. Ms Tomei has always been one of our most underrated actresses, with a willingness to play working people that’s unusual in Hollywood (think of her mechanic in “My Cousin Vinny” (1992), or her stripper advising Mickey Rourke on his estranged daughter in “The Wrestler”(2008).) Steven is completely thunderstruck by her, a woman who lives a life completely unimaginable to the intellectual social circles he rolls in, and he cannot believe that his chance encounter has unlocked something in him that’s upended his life. Mr Dinklage begins the movie hiding behind a pot plant to avoid some small talk and ends it calmly doing some dishes. It doesn’t sound like much, but he moves from a man tortured by his own indecision, obediently swallowing the pills Patricia gives him without question, into someone capable of changing multiple lives.
Ms Hathaway, who also produced, is fantastic as a mother stretched to the ends of her sanity by the pressure she puts onto herself, and whose method of opting out is as believable as it is hilarious. The scene where Patricia makes polite chitchat with Magdalena, who of course cannot quite figure out what her new boss is up to, is also an interesting choice by writer-director Rebecca Miller. In their dialogue, without saying so directly, it’s clear that Patricia’s family could not accept 1) her becoming a young mother 2) of a mixed-raced child and 3) her hypochondria and cleaning obsessions are almost certainly attempts to regain the control she lost by having her beloved child. This is more funny than it is sad, of course, as the best coping mechanism are, and Ms Hathaway gets to do more comedy here than she’s done in a very long time.
Again without being explicit, race is also the problem Trey has with Tereza dating Julian. In a cast of finely drawn characters, Mr James has the toughest job because Trey is the only true villain. He is a stenographer who thinks his familiarity with the legal system makes him an expert, and a Civil War reenactor for whom history is facts to be controlled, not an experience to enjoy. His willingness to choose his righteousness over Tereza’s happiness, and his acceptance of the resulting damage to his relationship with Magdalena in doing so, is a painfully believable depiction of someone who believes human nature can be bent to the law. Of course everyone else knows things should be the other way around, especially when it comes to your family.
Ms Kulig has the least showy part in the film but it’s the most central and her determination and intelligence come to the good. Ms Jane and Mr Ellison are just delightful as the clever kids willing to bet large on their relationship, even though it might not last forever. The production is unshowy and in service to allowing the characters the full stretch of their personalities. And all this is happening while Steven works on an opera inspired by Katrina’s stories about men (music by Bryce Dessner), as well as a later, second opera that ends by tying the whole movie together. Complaining that this is all a little too studied is unfair as well as unkind, but “She Came to Me” is most unusual for American movies these days as it’s a mid-budget thriller about ordinary lives which centers human feelings and has a human heart. But it does, unfortunately, try a little too hard.