Berlin 2023

She Came to Me review – bizarrely watchable dramedy struggles to find the right note

Rebecca Miller's new film is a strangely engaging but tonally inconsistent ensemble piece about a washed-up New York composer

The latest film from Rebecca Miller, whose smart, charming romantic drama Maggie's Plan graced our screens back in 2015, lands with an uneasy sense of somebody offloading a notebook's worth of half-formed ideas into a single feature. Selected as the opening film to this year's Berlin Film Festival, assumedly on account of its star-studded cast, She Came to Me is well-acted but tonally baffling and often even downright bizarre in its choices, though somehow never entirely off-putting or boring to sit through.

The film centres in on jaded opera composer Stephen (Peter Dinklage), who finds an unlikely muse (and sexual gratification) in tugboat captain (!) Katrina (Marisa Tomei) at the same time his therapist wife (Anne Hathaway) is battling a new-found calling to nunhood. Then Stephen's step-son, Julian (Evan Ellison), is accused of statutory rape, a curveball in his otherwise sweetly-drawn teen romance with Tereza (Harlow Jane). Tereza's controlling step-father (Brian d’Arcy James), whose hobby as a Confederate cosplayer tells you all you need to know, wants to press criminal charges after finding out they've been sleeping together, much to the dismay of Tereza's mother (Joanna Kulig), who's also – wait for it – Stephen and Patricia's cleaner. And breathe.

Decorated with a tinkly, emotive score by Bryce Dessner of band The National, but packed with moments of comic absurdity that spike like abnormal readings on a heart monitor, let's just say that tonal consistency does not appear to be one of Miller's prime concerns. It's a film that has you wondering for all its runtime where exactly she cooked up such an awkwardly knotty story, with its inflections of romantic comedy but also the sensation of watching three or four different films – broadly-drawn sex romp, high-minded drama, quirky character study – playing out at the same time. It's a piece that can't quite seem to make up its mind as to how offbeat, or dour, or funny it actually wants to be, lingering in that strange cinematic void where it's never real enough but never absurd enough either.

Miller's last film, Maggie's Plan, had more than a hint of Noah Baumbach (and also therefore Woody Allen) about it, with its New York intellectual types struggling with questions of fate and trying to find meaning in life's coincidences. This one leans into that mode, too, complete with obligatory shots of sunsets and Brownstones that suggest it wants to work as a celebration of the city and its characters – but it hits its stride a little too late in the game. When Tereza and Julian set sail on Katrina's tugboat bound to Delaware to legally marry and avoid facing any criminal charges, several of the ensemble in tow, the film locates the screwball energy it appears Miller might have been looking for all along. But the plot mechanic feels designed for the halfway point, not the finale.

Peter Dinklage, channeling the same misunderstood melancholy he tapped into for Joe Wright's underrated musical Cyrano, is effective though understated, steered by the presence of two strong women in his life. It helps that they're played by Anne Hathaway and Marisa Tomei, both giving complex performances in a film that doesn't quite match their commitment of depth. Hathaway is Miller's best asset here, and the film suffers whenever she – sexy, neurotic, managing her character's tonal shifts in a way the film is not – disappears; one scene of her slowly removing her clothes as she recounts a story about a kreplach dumpling to a confused patient (read as: a kindred spirit) is a thing of unhinged beauty.

The movie being so consistently out of key isn't all bad. There's some intrigue to be mined from the chaos and it's entirely possible to actually enjoy watching She Came to Me through a lens of complete bewilderment. What, through all its narrative labour, does it all mean? It's never obvious. Maybe not to take anything as unexpected as life so seriously – a point proven by an admittedly hilarious visual gag in the final tracking shot that's both perfect and predictable (the movie is neither). A strange, uneven piece of work this is from Miller, but it lingers in the mind… perhaps for the wrong reasons, but linger it does.

She Came to Me was screened as part of the Berlinale Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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