Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at TIFF, writer/director Heather Young's debut feature Murmur is arriving in competition this month at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah scheduled from January 24-30th.
The film stars Shan MacDonald as Donna, an aging woman whom we meet as she's vaping in her nondescript home amidst wine bottles and an almost suffocating sense of nothingness that we don't yet understand.
Donna has unreturned text messages on her cell phone, leftover remnants from a fractured relationship with an adult daughter who has tired of her drinking ways and who appears to have had enough following Donna's recent DWI.
Getting older can be lonely enough. Getting older when you've burned just about every bridge is devastating.
Sentenced to community service at her local animal shelter for her latest infraction, Donna shows up willingly but not quite enthusiastically and you can feel radiating from her the kind of despair that arises when you really don't know what to do but you've got to do something. Ably performing the assigned mundane tasks with something shy of a sense of purpose, Donna doesn't really show any sign of life until she stumbles across Charlie, an elderly dog scheduled to be euthanized.
The two connect.
If you're sitting there saying to yourself "Oh great, another dog rescues human story," then you really haven't been paying attention because there's such an aching stark realism at work in Murmur and such a rich authenticity to everything that unfolds that Heather Young isn't about to serve up some Hallmark greeting card sapfest with paint-by-number plot twists.
Murmur is, instead, so much more.
Murmur is nearly always heartfelt and occasionally funny, uncomfortably vulnerable and at times emotionally devastating. There isn't a false emotion to be found in Murmur, a film that immerses itself and us in the worlds of addiction and the relationship between humans and their animals that can be both our saving grace and yet also just another unhealthy coping skill.
Utilizing an entire cast of non-actors, Young has cast a cinematic miracle in the person of Shan MacDonald, whom she reportedly worked with several years earlier at a doggy daycare and remembered her passion for elder rescues when she began casting for this production. Indeed, it's just that kind of raw honesty that MacDonald brings to the film - she's not a professional actor and for the most part that works wonders for the film. In those fleeting moments when it doesn't seem to work wonders for the film? Nah, it still works wonders for the film. MacDonald is a revelation here as she taps into the kind of vulnerability seldom captured on the big screen yet absolutely essential for us to believe in and care about Donna.
Young has noted that while she wrote the story for Murmur, she encouraged her actors to all live with their characters and speak from their own life experiences. She cast many of the film's ensemble to play roles similar to their everyday roles, for example, Young cast a real cardiologist, a real veterinarian, a real addictions counselor, and a real physiotherapist in the film.
They use their own language.
So does Donna, really, and it's absolutely amazing to watch come to life.
Young also often shot the film in real business locations, at times even during business hours, an approach that adds to the film's energy and sense of being in the moment.
Jeffery Wheaton's lensing aids the film's sense of uncomfortable intimacy, at times lingering on Donna's face so completely that you practically feel like you're going to melt right into her. There's much darkness in the film, yet Wheaton knows when to capture the light. He also subtly captures the little nuances of Donna's transition from alcohol to animal addict, yet the camera never exploits her or makes fun of her but instead simply empathetically tells her story.
Ryan Vessey's production design nicely takes advantage of Young's improvisational spirit, while Sarah DeCourcy's original music for the film companions the film with a simplicity and emotional honesty.
It's worth noting for the animal lovers that Young avoids the all too frequent cinematic tendency to put animals on display, instead weaving their natural behaviors into the film's story structure and encouraging Donna to respond to their natural presence. There's no stunts or cloying cuteness to be found here, though I'll confess having found Charlie to be completely and utterly adorable.
There's simply no question that Heather Young announces herself as a filmmaker to watch with Murmur, a film that embraces simplicity and genuine storytelling to introduce us to a woman whose story we come to care about every step of her journey. If you're lucky enough to be at Slamdance this month, make sure to make time to catch Murmur, a remarkable film from a remarkable up-and-coming filmmaker.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic