Review: 'Stillwater' revolves around parental protection

How much should a parent do to protect a child?

Anyone with a family may ask this question now and then. As parents, few moments feel as helpless as when we want to help our children but don’t know what to do.

In the opening moments of this intriguing drama, we’re introduced to Bill, a father who follows a routine. Every day, when he’s lucky, he works. Some days on an oil rig, others on a construction site. Most evenings, after he works, he walks in the door, fast food in hand, then watches television until he falls asleep. One day he has one more conversation with his mother-in-law; another he takes one more flight to Marseilles, France, a familiar destination. This quiet man reveals little about why he travels, using his few words to project calm as he desperately tries to help his daughter.

Without mentioning the name Amanda Knox, this fictionalized tale focuses on an American student sent to prison for a crime she says she did not commit. We remember, from the headlines, how Knox was convicted of murder in Italy; we meet, on the screen, a girl named Allison who is in a French prison for a murder she insists a young man committed. As Bill enters the prison one more time, he promises to do whatever it takes to free the daughter he trusts.

Writer/director Tom McCarthy – who won an Oscar for his “Spotlight” screenplay – slowly reveals the layers of these complex characters in a series of sequences that make us care. We see how Bill can be short tempered, impatient and unclear; we sense that Allison, as confident as she sounds, may not always be as truthful as her father believes. McCarthy, with subtlety, lets their relationship emerge through conversations that detail how involved parenthood can be and how easily people who love each other can disappoint.

The filmmaker finds in Matt Damon an ideal interpreter of the ambiguities that haunt Bill. The actor perfectly captures – in a hesitation in his walk, the rhythm of his speech – a man tormented by what he can’t control, reluctant to reveal what he feels, hesitant to engage with others. Damon is, again, ideally cast in a role that demands that intense silence he so effectively projects. And while his substantive performance grounds the film, he is well supported by Abigail Breslin as Allison, in a portrayal that rings true without unnecessary histrionics for the camera.

These two performances are so strong, in fact, that McCarthy should have trusted them to carry the story. But he chooses, early on, to introduce one of those spontaneous connections that only happen in the movies and, later, to rely on unnecessary cruelty to advance the plot. Rather than let these characters continue to breathe, he brings in tricks that aren’t needed in a film this powerful.

Even with awkward pivots, the “Stillwater” path deserves to be experienced. In a year when seeing a movie in a theater is a big deal for many, this one fills the screen with life, love and a dose of hope.

“Stillwater” is showing in theaters and runs 2 hours, 20 minutes, and is rated R for “language.”

More Information

Film Summary: Stillwater

Content: High. Writer/director Tom McCarthy tells a powerful story of what a father will consider to free his daughter.
Entertainment: High. McCarthy's authentic approach brings these characters to life on screen despite his choice to rely on a couple of unnecessary plot devices.

Message: High. Despite these missteps, McCarthy offers meaningful lessons about parenting adult children.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn from characters we experience on screen can help us understand what we face in real life.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your older children about how to focus on truth in relationships that matter.