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