Despair is often measured in the decibels shattered by an actor’s vocal range. The louder the cry, the more the audience is intended to join in the ocular mist. But in Meadowland, which premiered Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival, it is only felt by the steady, unrelenting march toward the dark. The lighting never seeks high contrast, but shadows pour from every character while they circle the drain.
This marks new territory for stars Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson, who enter Reed Morano’s vision of a damnable grassy field outside of the Jersey turnpike by playing parents forced to chart the ultimate nightmare. Both find Meadowland’s grimmest corners, but Wilde also might have unearthed a career best.
The film opens on one fleeting snapshot of happiness when Sarah (Wilde) and Phil (Wilson) are at the tail end of a road trip from their New York City family home. Stopping at an unassuming gas station, they let their son Jessie use the restroom while they complete chores—after which he vanishes through a side door of the rest stop to never to be seen again.
The film then flashes forward a year, and Sarah and Phil’s marriage endures the same unspoken condition as their son’s fate. Ostensibly together, they’re both going to hell in their own quiet ways.
Meadowland’s greatest strength is simultaneously its biggest hurdle. By refusing to find light at the end of the tunnel or an equally bright, fiery wreck, the protagonists are on a slow, ceaseless decline into delusion and grief that never gets past the first fabled step of denial. Though set a year after the opening prologue’s disappearance, the whole film is a single movement of the characters’ descent, and the conflict merely resides in how they significantly vary in their distant and unreachable islands.
From the top, Sarah and Phil share the same space, but also the hole left in it. With few words exchanged between that chasm, they privately wither next to one another on the bed and couch. Phil is purportedly the more calm and rationale one, actively helping police as they narrow in on the likely child snatcher that ruined their lives. Yet nevertheless, all the group meetings in the world cannot stop him from deteriorating every night that he drives past the fateful gas station, nor prevent him from mistaking shared-grief with another parent to be a cry for revenge.
Sarah, conversely, wallows in self-delusion by convincing herself that not only is her son alive but that he is happy with a family somewhere. Due to Sarah’s position as a teacher around two at-risk kids, neglected special needs Adam (Ty Simpkins) and the self-cutting Alma (Eden Duncan-Smith), the audience expectation is for Sarah to find solace in their aid. But she instead regresses further into her shell, even emulating Alma’s penchant for death metal music and the knife.
It is an uncomfortably blunt performance for Wilde whose typically ethereal quality is utilized by Morano to personify a very earthly and primal parental anguish. As the hoodie, scars, and fantasies manifest, Wilde taps into a visceral agony unlike her past work.
Wilson, however, is afforded little of the same opportunity. Indeed, his everyman anonymity never glimpses further into his pain than the immediate sympathy his situation and anger clearly invites.
This is probably in no small part due to the film’s sustained suffering, which strives for the lyrical but for first-time director Morano occasionally drifts towards a surrender to misery. As a result, strong supporting players like John Leguizamo, Juno Temple, and Giovanni Ribisi feel like they’re just passing through.
However, the success of Meadowland is that until the closing shot, Sarah and Phil never attempt genuine absolution. Instead, Morano and screenwriter Chris Rossi choose to embrace a less formulaic depiction to grief, leading to a shocking and wholly earned third act crisis of conscience, and even reality. Like a familiar poem cited in the film, sometimes things do not get lighter, but this film finds its own peaceful embrace within such shaded sorrows.