Monday, April 15, 2024

“MATT AND MARA”

THE STORY – Mara, a young creative writing professor, is struggling with problems in her marriage to an experimental musician. One day, Matt, a charismatic, free-spirited author from her past, wanders onto her university campus. Bonded by their shared interests, the two gradually become closer. When Mara’s husband unexpectedly cancels plans to drive her to an out-of-town conference, Matt accompanies Mara on the trip instead. Along the way, the tension surrounding their undefined relationship slowly grows.

THE CAST – Deragh Campbell, Matt Johnson, Mounir Al Shami, Emma Healey & Avery Nayman

THE TEAM – Kazik Radwanski (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 80 Minutes


There’s something raw and slightly guerilla about shooting a film with a skeleton script that gives filmmakers a sense they’re making art that is more exposed to reality. In recent years, it has been used poorly by the likes of Jamie Adams’s romance “She Is Love,” while it gave Derek Cianfrance’s cynical masterpiece “Blue Valentine” an air of authenticity to a marriage in turmoil. It’s what Kazik Radwanski employs on the whimsical but confused “Matt and Mara,” a slice-of-time film covering the few weeks of rekindled passion between old friends Matt (Matt Johnson, best known for directing 2023’s “BlackBerry“) and Mara (an excellent Deragh Campbell).

When the published author and New York living Matt turns up unannounced, but very deliberately, at the Toronto classroom where Mara teaches poetry, there is an instant sense that the superficial world Mara has curated for herself is shaken. After college, the scholar whom Matt derides as being metaphorically made from glass got married to Samir (Mounir Al Shami) and had baby Avery (Avery Nayman). The friends lost touch, having never consummated any kind of sexual relationship. Matt’s reappearance in Toronto is due to his dad being in palliative care. In a way not dissimilar to how “Before Sunrise” is composed, the two rekindle their friendship by walking around the streets of Toronto, and Matt’s affable outlook on the world softens Mara before the two begin an affair of sorts.

Of sorts because the two, one married and the other on the precipice of grief, don’t know what they really want. Neither of them is going to make a move; the entire relationship is a stalemate of emotions. The affair is emotional, and they can’t speak about it where Radwanksi appears to comment on the difficulties of communication, particularly within relationships between artists. The arts are a communicative force; movies, paintings, and music are all, in essence, a form of communication, and the entire film becomes an entanglement of paradoxes around these topics. Mara, a poet, hates music but music is formed from lyrics, which itself is a form of poetic artistry. She’s quick to dismiss it, just like Matt dismisses art that isn’t controversial.

These dynamics at play are messy, with their illicit emotional affair being the exact opposite of Mara and Samir’s relationship, where Mara seems to get her spark back around Matt rather than being quietly muted around Samir. Mara also loves music when she’s around Matt, singing together on the road trip the two take to a writer’s conference. Those communicative barriers that exist between artists like Mara and Samir are never more prevalent than when Samir chooses his music over driving Mara to the conference, the messy intertwinings of choosing art over spousal needs acting like a buffer between want and creativity.

This convoluted idea around art and communications is highlighted when Matt, whose buoyant good-natured disposition hides a slightly sinister undertone, gaslights Mara after she doesn’t jump into bed with him. It’s emblematic of that kind of male privilege where men think that by being a good friend who drives her around and flirts with her, he earns the right to sleep with her. There’s no genuine malicious intent by his gaslighting and the dismissal he makes of her conference in favor of a better sexual prospect, nor is there a misreading of the desire they both share. But that neither can communicate what they really want – because they and arguably Radwanski don’t know – is where “Matt and Mara” evolves from an undemanding story of rekindled passion to a complex tale of the mistruths, the insecurities, and difficulties we have as artists who only know communication through art. That this had no script and that Matt Johnson and Deragh Campbell are basically ad-libbing every interaction makes “Matt and Mara” feel like all of this chaos and poor communication, which give the film such an intriguing angle, are accidental. It’s the fortuitous result of letting artistic beings riff together; their genuine conversations act as a mirror to Johnson and Campbell themselves, the former more than the latter, who is using his own name in the film.

While “Matt and Mara” is amusing and has some fascinating themes to make a movie around, it’s so disorganized that it seems like Radwanski accidentally discovered penicillin when trying to find smallpox. None more so than the abrupt ending, the audience getting whiplash that it’s over, which feels like it has no idea where to even end such an affair. But to the film’s credit (if done purposefully, and one wants to believe so), Radwanski wants this ending to represent the affair; it’s over before it’s begun.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Deragh Campbell is excellent, and the two leads have terrific chemistry while the film is witty enough to clear any narrative concerns.

THE BAD - The ending is abrupt enough to give you whiplash, and the film's skeleton script makes it feel like Radwanski has no clear idea of what he wants it to be.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Deragh Campbell is excellent, and the two leads have terrific chemistry while the film is witty enough to clear any narrative concerns.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The ending is abrupt enough to give you whiplash, and the film's skeleton script makes it feel like Radwanski has no clear idea of what he wants it to be.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"MATT AND MARA"