Carefully written on the inside of a child’s toy box made to look like a cozy country house, there is a simple message: a name, a phone number, and a desperate plea to call the cops, should said message ever be revealed. Sandra (Clare Dunn) has placed it there, knowing that the abuse she suffers at the hands of her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) will one day veer into deadly territory, a last ditch idea for salvation. It’s that toy house that saves Sandra’s life, thanks to her trustworthy eldest daughter Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) running it to a local convenience store during her parents’ worst row ever, and it will be a real house that finally frees her in Phyllida Lloyd’s empathetic drama, “Herself.”
Co-written by Dunne alongside “What Richard Did” screenwriter and frequent TV scribe Malcolm Campbell, “Herself” traces Sandra’s journey from doting mother and abused wife to emancipated woman, thanks to her own ability to dream big in the face of overwhelming obstacles. While Dunn and Campbell’s script attempts to tackle a number of timely issues — from economic anxiety and housing scarcity, in addition to domestic abuse — “Herself” also keenly observes how all those problems can impair good, caring people from being able to help others. Sandra’s big plan to literally build her own house from scratch is steeped in her own sense of self-determination, but it’s a wild idea without the help of others. But how can she rally her friends and neighbors when they are suffering their own troubles?
It’s a heartbreaking idea, but “Herself” — much like its believably plucky heroine — doesn’t allow itself to wallow in the drama, and despite the film’s heart-wrenching storyline, things never get unbearably dark. Instead, Lloyd’s feature strikes a fine balance between all of life’s ups and downs, illustrated by Sandra’s unfortunately relatable traumas and a series of stellar performances. Dunne, not well known to movie fans and better recognized for her theater work (“Herself” is also her first screenwriting credit), is a revelation here, a steady and emotive presence that anchors the film with a lived-in, wholly believable performance.
Her youngest co-stars, including O’Hara and Molly McCann as youngest daughter Molly, are just as steady, with charming turns that never veer into kiddie cliche (McCann in particular is given some heavy lifting in the film’s second half). Elsewhere, “Game of Thrones” star Conleth Hill sheds his Lord Varys persona (for one thing, he’s got hair) to become a prickly but lovable contractor, and the ever-steely Harriet Walter appears as an unexpected ally for Sandra and her girls. Other helpers come round throughout the film’s cheery second act, a motley crew of underdeveloped supporting characters that still manage to wring some tears by the film’s end.
That’s all part of perhaps the film’s greatest strength: an ability and interest to turn away from the sort of twists and turns audiences might expect from such a drama. While Dunn and Campbell’s script is occasionally given over to cliches, “Herself” often manages to subvert them at the last minute — a shocking courtroom reveal doesn’t turn into some cheap tearfest, a crushing final act twist doesn’t dissolve into the expected ending, Sandra’s two biggest champions are no one’s first choice. Instead, these moments discover something very real in the process. A series of flashbacks to her abuse are tempered down just as they start to feel heavy-handed, and even a too-spot-on use of Sia’s “Titanium” during a triumphant moment is easy enough to look past in the face of otherwise solid filmmaking.
Lloyd goes out of her way to build out key elements early on, like just how good of a mother Sandra is and the lengths she’s willing to go to keep things good for her girls, or how the motivations of Gary’s continued manipulations are difficult for anyone (Sandra, the authorities, even the audience) to fully identify. Sandra’s struggles in a depressed Dublin, one in which she’s far from the only parent desperate to secure a new home for her kids, are illustrated through well-crafted, all-too-real incidents. Even the hotel in which she and the girls hold temporary, government-funded accommodations treat them like trash, and not every person who is asked for help attempts to provide. But some do.
Along the way, as Sandra begins to collect and assemble an unlikely community of friends and compatriots, the narrative is mostly able to avoid feeling trite, instead suiting the very heart of the film with its message. How can you help someone in need if you yourself are in need? No, not everyone is able, and the deep empathy of “Herself” doesn’t avoid that particular heartbreak, instead celebrating the people who can help, who are able, and what they ultimately get out of the exchange. Audiences will get plenty, too.
“Herself” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.