★ ★ ★
“Unless,” a new film staring Catherine Keener, is a portrait of a family in distress.
Successful author—a “book club darling”—and translator Reta Winters (Keener), her physician partner Tom (Matt Craven) and children are rocked out of their suburban complacency when daughter Norah (Hannah Gross) drops out of society to become a panhandler on the streets of Toronto.
Wrapped in a thick wool blanket, holding a sign that reads “Goodness,” Norah sits, catatonically outside of legendary discount department store Honest Ed’s. Detached and despondent, the young woman sits, quiet as the falling snow that swirls around her as her family struggles to understand why and how she ended up on the street. Is it a breakdown? A protest? A personal revolution? A reckoning of some sort?
Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Shields’s final novel, she passed away in 2003, “Unless” isn’t driven by plot but by Norah’s unhappiness and her family’s reaction to it. Some flowery dialogue occasionally gets in the way—“Sometimes I think that for Norah there’s a bounteous feast going on but she has not been invited.”—but Keener’s keen intelligence and concern provides the emotional core that shapes the thin story into a compelling character study. In the novel Reta’s journey was an internal one and Keener makes it external and as cinematic as possible given the subdued nature of the film.
Although the question of why and how this happened lies at the heart of the film, director Alan Gilsenan is more interested in the effects of Norah’s decision than the decision itself. There is a conclusion, a reason, but the destination in this case is less satisfying than the journey. The trauma that triggered Norah’s inward turn is unsettling, both emotionally and visually as presented in the movie, but doesn’t provide the kind of capper a story like this needs to transcend character. It feels slightly out of balance in its final minutes as it switches focus from Reta to Norah because we realize that this isn’t the story of a woman’s decision to drop out, but the story of a family’s reckoning with the aftermath of that choice.