Annabelle Attanasio’s intelligently heartfelt, Montana-set indie “Mickey and the Bear” opens with a few telling sensory cues: the placid face of a sleeping teenager, Mickey (Camila Morrone), the faint sound of someone else’s strained breathing, then the drip of a leaky trailer roof onto Mickey’s face, which serves to roust her from bed. Somehow we know we’re in for something quiet but coiled, a drama about stasis and disruption, but also awakening.
It’s the kind of image-and-sound storytelling that makes you feel confident in a new filmmaker, and Attanasio — an accomplished actress (“Bull” on CBS) making her feature debut as a writer-director — keeps that feeling alive as she draws us into the emotionally fraught world of a resilient, clear-eyed small-town high school senior edging ever closer to the biggest decision of her life.
Anchored by some wonderful performances and a sense of beautiful remoteness that extends from the crisp, mountainous locale to the faces of its protagonists, “Mickey and the Bear” is the kind of close-knit drama that plays like part of a conversation across all manner of indies about adolescent girls coming to grips with the legacy of worrisome parents, including last year’s searing “Leave No Trace” and even another release this week, the immigrant story “Hala.”
Mickey doesn’t lack for smarts and promise, but she’s also awash in responsibility as cooking/cleaning/earning caretaker for her dad, Hank (James Badge Dale), a widowed, Oxy-addicted Iraq war veteran with a rascally charm and a triggered temper. He loves his daughter but knows that Mickey’s deep affection for him is a playable instrument whenever he senses her desire to escape.
Theirs is a thorny push-pull relationship of endearment and tension, with an undercurrent of line-blurring closeness marked by the sense of loss each feels for the deceased wife/mom. (Mickey wears her mother’s dresses; Hank gets drunk, croons and wants to slow dance.) That unacknowledged grief, and where it could be headed in Hank’s case, becomes one more reason Mickey senses an upcoming crossroads about her dad codependency that’s beyond the usual post-graduation, college-or-not questions.
It doesn’t help her sense of imprisonment that she’s got a clingy, controlling doofus of a boyfriend (Ben Rosenfield) who assumes a future of marriage and babies, or that she finds herself drawn to sensitive, charismatic track star Wyatt (Calvin Demba), a British transplant who shares both Mickey’s desire to go to college, and her wryly observant point of view. Also hovering in her orbit is a no-nonsense, understanding VA psychiatrist (Rebecca Henderson) familiar with, and concerned about, Mickey’s situation.
The best thing one can say about Attanasio’s approach to this material, which arose from her own research into veterans’ lives in Anaconda, Mont., where she set her story, is that she understands how complicated people’s lives are when on the surface their issues might seem cut-and-dried. Neither Mickey’s nor Hank’s behavior is readily guessable as they stress-test each other’s temperature gauges or sense of devotion.
It’s all a very believable, close-quarters theater of exhaustion and pain, with moments of lightness and warmth that only add to the difficulty of Mickey’s predicament, and all of it captured in alluring fixed images of depth and color by cinematographer Conor Murphy. Together, he and Attanasio clearly grasp what’s both lived-in and sealed-off about their characters’ environment.
It helps that Morrone and Dale are so eminently photographable, their inner life somehow camera-ready. But while Dale is a proven commodity with characters of simmering masculine angst, Morrone is fast becoming someone worthy of only the richest roles as she follows a magnetic comic turn in last year’s underseen romp “Never Goin’ Back” with her never-look-anywhere-else portrayal here. Equal parts fierce, frisky and resigned, Morrone’s Mickey is that marvel in today’s teen-crazed movie climate: a young person within whom you can see the serious girl, the vivacious teen, the free soul she wants to be, and the trapped woman she fears she already is.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 22, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles