There remains some truth in advertising, especially when it comes to Rowan Athale’s bizarre family thriller, “Strange but True,” adapted from the novel by John Searles. It’s a twisty tale of tragic secrets, broken families, and the magical thinking we apply to events that evade our understanding. Athale does a remarkable job keeping the audience in the dark as to some of the more shocking reveals — it’s impossible to dismiss this one as “predictable,” that’s for sure.
It starts on a surreal, almost supernatural note, when heavily pregnant Melissa (Margaret Qualley) arrives on the doorstep of her dead boyfriend Ronnie’s family home and announces to his embittered mother Charlene (Amy Ryan) and brother Philip (Nick Robinson), who is convalescing with a broken leg, that she’s pregnant with Ronnie’s baby. The catch? Ronnie’s been dead for five years.
The possibility for a mystical, unbelievable answer from beyond the grave hangs in the air for most of “Strange but True.” But again, the title does not lead us astray. There is an answer that lies in reality, and Charlene and Philip set out to uncover it. Former librarian Charlene dedicates her hours to researching medical journal articles about posthumous sperm collection and virgin births, while confronting her ex-husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) about his involvement. Philip, on crutches, tries to understand Melissa, seeking out answers from her high school friends and a psychic she visited. He reaches out to the expectant mother herself, who is nesting in a small cottage she’s rented from an attentive, childless older couple, Gail (Blythe Danner) and Bill (Brian Cox).
“I believe that you believe,” Philip tells Melissa, giving her the opportunity to share that sheer belief is all she has too. She has no other explanation for this seemingly immaculate conception, and so the mind creates the narrative that the individual needs in that moment, wrapped in grief and memory and guilt. Of course, there is a reality that exists outside of that belief, which is as unbelievable but far more dark and far less mystical.
The stellar cast elevates the schlocky charms of this thriller. It’s well-paced and cut like a nighttime soap, jumping between characters as they explore this puzzling mystery over the course of a couple of days. Dropping the audience into this startling premise makes for a plot with a propulsive thrust, and the script, by Eric Garcia, holds back just enough crucial information to keep us hooked. Those details all come rushing out in a baffling final montage of reveals as Melissa delivers the baby around whom so many questions still remain.
Athale’s visual style is unmemorable but adequate for this lean and consistently surprising intimate mystery where the story is the star. But any sense of a satisfying ending or message is drowned in the flood of flashbacks, reveals and plot points dumped at the end. It’s almost irresponsible to walk the audience blindly down this path to pure human darkness only to leave us with a cowardly cop-out. That happy ending is strange, and it’s the most predictable choice the filmmakers pull off.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 6, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; alos on VOD