Streaming Review

Like a House on Fire review – unformed unpicking of motherhood

This raw exploration of family from Jesse Noah Klein is occasionally gripping and poignant but ultimately bites off more than it can chew

Whether it's the roar of a matriarch in Hereditary or the chaos of maternity in Tully, the notion of motherhood has been making its way on-screen in a rebuttal of traditional gender norms. Writer-director Jesse Noah Klein tries to follow suit with Like a House on Fire, a reckoning that captures the soul-bearing turmoil of postnatal depression. But while it manages some poignant moments, the film’s mismanaged script results in an unformed family drama.

Following a two year absence, the sound of her daughter's laughter stops Dara (Sarah Sutherland) in her tracks. Arriving home to find a woman seven months pregnant in her place, with a husband who has moved on and a daughter who no longer recognises her, Dara is desperately clinging to the past as the present collides with unrelenting force. Distressed that her four-year-old Isabel (Margaux Vaillancourt) is calling another woman “Mum,” Dara is now a ghost in the memories of all those who knew her.

Klein’s script never explicitly labels Dara’s postnatal depression, though the emotionally resonant declarations (“I loved you so much I forgot to breathe”) to her daughter and the solemn conversations with not-yet-divorced husband Danny (Jared Abrahamson) are telling enough in themselves. Unfortunately, the claustrophobic nature of the writing lessens the emotional force of any heartfelt moments.

Sutherland’s intimate performance is repeatedly interrupted as intensity ramps, stifling the building sensitivity and emotional depth. In what should have been a pivotal scene, Dara grows irritated by a line of maternal questioning mid-interview. The camera lingers close, her jaw tenses and her gaze narrows, before the moment is suddenly cut short. Like a House on Fire sacrifices meditative grounding for quick pacing in its eighty-four-minute duration, though one suspects a more patient exploration would have deepened the drama.

Elsewhere, editor Richard Comeau’s affecting use of timed cutaways wonderfully visualises Dara’s swirling memories. In her first confrontation with the family that was once hers, a sequence in which she storms away is intercut with another of her being asked to leave. The disruption of chronology is an early suggestion of Dara’s own instability. Her disorientation becomes overwhelming, squinting against the clinically bright sunlight and cowering from screaming children, cinematographer Ariel Methot framing these moments with out-of-focus close-ups as to replicate her disarray.

A handful of sub-plots emerge – including Dara’s search for her missing mother which triggers a timid proposition that Dara’s postnatal depression is hereditary – but most get lost amongst Dara’s central reconciliation of herself and the adapted family role she assumes. Like a House on Fire divisively chronicles motherhood and compassionately broaches the rebuilding of a family with touching nuance, but a more streamlined approach to plot might have birthed a better film.

Like a House on Fire is now streaming on various digital platforms.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

The Father review – Anthony Hopkins delivers a tour de force

Florian Zeller's ingenious screen translation of his own stage play offers a terrifying insight into the realities of living with dementia

Red Moon Tide review – Spanish coastal tale is dripping with mood

This slow and ambiguous debut from filmmaker Lois Patiño, set in a tiny Galician village, makes for one strange and unsettling trip

Ride or Die review – manga adaptation fails to find its feet

A promising lead performance isn’t enough to save this muddled and over-sexualised queer thriller from filmmaker Ryūichi Hiroki

Love and Monsters review – sweet and uncynical apocalypse adventure

Dylan O'Brien is brilliantly cast in this fun if somewhat forgettable romp, set in a world where giant creatures wreak havoc

Features

Be Blown Away (and Baffled) By the Trailer for Leos Carax’s Annette

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard co-star in an original movie musical, which is set to open the 74th Cannes Film Festival

Best Films to Stream This Week in the UK

With cinemas still closed, we highlight the best new streaming releases, from Oscar nominees to a monster romance

Stream With a Theme: The Best Time Loop Films

To mark the arrival of Palm Springs on Prime Video, we highlight the cinematic time loops worth putting on repeat...

Angelina Jolie Fights Fire (and Assassins) In the Trailer For Those Who Wish Me Dead

The new film from Sicario director Taylor Sheridan centres on a fire warden who must help a young boy escape ruthless killers