The apparent influences on Tara Miele’s “Wander Darkly” are easy to spot, beyond the slightly esoteric nod to American author Charles J. Finger in its very title. The film’s obvious and immediate forbearers range from Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Science of Sleep,” to shlockier fare like “Stay” and “Ghost.” While Miele’s latest feature offers an ambitious amalgam of other projects, all tucked inside a vaguely secretive package, the unwieldy trauma drama isn’t able to live up to its biggest ideas and even bigger swings. Star Sienna Miller — in the midst of a low-key renaissance after her quietly revelatory performance in last year’s under-seen “American Woman” — soars, but even her grounded turn isn’t enough to bring “Wander Darkly” down to earth.
Miele’s first feature since 2014’s “Starving in Suburbia” picks up after Adrienne (Miller) and Mateo (Diego Luna) welcome their first child into the world. Despite that life-changing event, coupled with the purchase of a new home, Adrienne and Mateo’s relationship is ailing, punctuated by small digs about their unmarried status. (If it sounds like they’re piling on the big changes, they are, and all the better to stave off inevitable tough conversations.) There are also the not entirely misplaced jealousies, and the sense they’re more mismatched than they ever dreamed. During an already off-kilter night out, the pair find their lives forever changed by a sudden, severe car accident.
Official synopses for the film have purposely obscured much of what happens after a bloodied, horrified Adrienne wakes up in the hospital. Suffice it to say, a chain of events throw off everything she — and eventually Mateo — understand about their world and relationship. Convinced she’s actually dead (or close to it, as a literal manifestation of Death starts haunting her, one of many rickety jump-scares that never fit with the rest of the film), Adrienne attempts to set things right by holding onto an envisioned future in which Mateo is gone and their beloved daughter knows little about her parents.
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As Adrienne’s sense of reality loosens, occasionally embodied by an elastic timeline that stretches back and forth between the present, past, and future, her motivations become all the more muddled. Miller is able to sell some of the script’s weakest lines and twists, holding fast to Adrienne’s love for her child (and Mateo) even as the film continually forgets her most basic motivations. Eventually, Mateo joins her on her metaphysical travels, as the pair try to reach back into their past to bring life to their future. It’s a creative construct: Adrienne and Mateo physically journey back into their memories to explain them to each other, a delicate spin on “Eternal Sunshine” that works because the duo are so warmly believable with each other.
Miele works with some enthralling ideas here, but the film hasn’t fully coalesced before she starts throwing her more challenging asks at the audience. As “Wander Darkly” winds on, the leaps become bigger and weirder, and while there are moments of beauty that pay off for patient viewers, they fade as the film moves into its final stretch. Miele wraps up certain aspects of her film into neat and tidy packages that feel like they belong elsewhere, perhaps in a film that doesn’t work best when it’s digging into emotion over logic. Other big questions are never answered, and the rubric by which Miele seems to have plotted her film is thrown out with little warning.
“Wander Darkly” asks a lot of its audience, and as its final moments build to a satisfying ending, they also bounce back into the film’s bleakest early moments, undoing more ambitious ideas in favor of something both senseless and conventional. There’s good stuff here, deep and dark and winsome and weird, but Miele gets lost in her wanderings, taking her film along with it.
“Wander Darkly” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.