Like a caged celebrity unprepared for the spotlight of fame, Leanne is a deer in headlights when newscasters and reporters swarm the squad car that has returned her home. But the notion of “home” is a deeply foreign idea, and Leanne is about to begin decompressing into an ordeal arguably much more difficult than the one she has already survived and endured. Abducted 17 years ago, Leanne has been found and returned, her captor has been jailed and her once-devastated parents are both shocked and jubilant. But what should be a joyful reunion is anything but, and Leanne’s reappearance into the real world is like a child being thrown into the woods.
Instead of finally reclaiming their long-lost daughter, Marcy (Cynthia Nixon) and Glen (David Warshofsky) encounter a complete stranger named Leia (Saoirse Ronan). She remembers nothing of her childhood, is estranged from these people she believes she has never met. Her “freedom” is more like a waking nightmare she cannot escape. Leia actually pines for Ben McKay (Jason Isaacs), the man the world sees as her psychotic abductor, but the only father figure she’s ever known. However, having been sheltered in a basement for most of her life never having witnessed the outside world, Leia’s relationship with Ben becomes more complex as she begins to wake to all his lies, and the world she once knew essentially comes to an end.
An absorbing look at the phenomenon of Stockholm syndrome —sympathizing and having allegiance to one’s captor— “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” begins with terrific promise. A rich, chilling and heartbreaking examination of constructed family, identity, victimization and brainwashing is, the film expertly lets the audience empathize with both Leia’s inner conflict and her parents’ desire to be whole after all of these troubled years. As Leia goes to therapy and reflects back on her time with Ben —through inventive flashbacks that she watches in the present tense— it becomes increasingly difficult for her to reconcile the love and lies of her “father” and the well-meaning but strained intentions of her biological parents. The confusion of her identity in this new neither-here-nor-there disaffected life is crushing.
Initially compelling and complex —the idea of a captive more connected to her abductor than her actual parents— “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” evinces a massive error in judgment in its second half that is unfortunately shark-jump worthy. In her desperate desire to force connection, Nixon’s character quickly becomes a simmering psychopath that begins to echo the crimes of the original abductor. ‘Stockholm’ may be attempting explore the ironic notion of what it means to be free in one’s “own” home, but it really just deflates as it maddeningly turns into an absurd thriller.
Between this movie and “James White,” Cynthia Nixon is having a hell of a Sundance in 2015. And Saoirse Ronan (who also appears in Sundance drama “Brooklyn”) gives an impressively withdrawn and alienated performance that once again shows off her finely-tuned chops. So it’s a real shame that the movie’s left turn is the equivalent of heading into oncoming traffic. As Marcy becomes more manic, turning against her husband and essentially transforming into a version of the overbearing monster she believed Leia’s captor to be, suspension of disbelief crumbles. And then the movie agonizingly plays out in this new ridiculous world with Leia right back where she started. Its final moments, which we cannot spoil here, are a downright betrayal of every smart, moving and affecting element that arrived in the movie’s well-considered first half.
Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith, the filmmaker clearly has great skills and a knack for pulling strong performances out of actors. But the tone-deaf misjudgment of the film’s second half is catastrophic; a bafflingly ill-advised blunder that “Stockholm, Pennsylvania” never recovers from. If Beckwith wants to recuperate from this folly, she’ll need to take a hard and fast look at the ill considered narrative choices made that ultimately undo the film. [C]