[Review] Strange But True

“If we know the whole truth, would we be less afraid? Or More?” a woman narrator asks at the beginning of Strange But True as we see a boy with a crutch and a broken leg trying desperately to run through a forest. He hides behind a tree, placing his hand on his heart, trying to slow his breathing. A branch snaps. His eyes bulge.

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And in true thriller fashion, we’re two days earlier. The boy is Philip Chase (Nick Robinson), a photographer of some apparent talent, who recently returned to his mother’s home after getting in a mysterious(?) accident. Now, he’s relegated to the couch, his leg in a cast while his gruff mother Charlene (Amy Ryan) fusses around the house. Right away, Strange But True posits an intriguing puzzle as a pregnant woman shows up at their door. Her name is Melissa (Margaret Qualley) and she used to date Philip’s deceased brother Ronnie (Connor Jessup).

There’s history here, as Charlene wants nothing to do with their new arrival. But Melissa has a bombshell...she says she’s pregnant with Ronnie’s baby. But Ronnie has been dead for five years!

This bombshell reverberates throughout the Chase family, as they struggle with the news and its implications. Is Melissa crazy? She has blackouts and vaguely defined spells where she can still feel Ronnie. But Philip at least believes that Melissa believes she’s pregnant with Ronnie’s child. He even has practical reasons how it could have happened. Ronnie’s sperm could have been frozen, for instance.

Charlene doesn’t want to believe it, though. She blames Melissa for Ronnie’s death; an event that acted as a final nail in the coffin of her relationship with her now ex-husband Richard (Greg Kinnear). He was a doctor on duty the night their son was killed. Now he’s in Florida shacking up with, in Charlene’s words, Malibu Barbie--AKA Holly (Sarah Allen). But he seems to know that Melissa was pregnant. And as the story starts to peel back the layers of deceit, the adage that truth is stranger than fiction becomes pertinent.

Oh boy.

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Based on the novel by John Searles, Strange But True is an odd mix of soapy melodrama and Lifetime thriller, buoyed by some stellar actors. I haven’t read the novel, but I have to think that it has a bit more nuance with the subject matter. There’s nothing particularly wrong with director Rowan Athale and writer Eric Garcia’s film. It’s just that it doesn’t present the twists with much fanfare. There’s some icky and surprising things happening beneath the veneer of a woman pregnant with a dead man’s baby. It’s just that those surprising turns lack oomph and the first two acts build with pulpy mystery after mystery that it just sort of deflates with an, “oh...that’s it?” once the dominoes start falling.

I was all in with the first two acts as it set up our characters and their interpersonal problems and demons. But the characters never really evolve from the stock tropes. The emo son returning home from NYC with his tail between his legs. The bitter mom whose family imploded. The dad who left his family for a younger woman. The odd pregnant woman and her surrogate family, lead by Blythe Danner and Brian Cox (did I mention the cast was stacked with excellent actors?). I never felt like the characters were examined in satisfactory ways. I guess that’s probably the casualty of adapting a novel into a 90 minute thriller. As it crests the finale, it tries to create one of those powerful and meaningful ending montages that’s supposed to bring it all together, but this is a truth better left uncovered.

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that doesn’t always mean its more interesting.