MOVIE OF THE WEEK February 21, 2020: THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

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motw logo 1-35Help comes from unexpected places when needed the most in The Kindness of Strangers, Lone Scherfig’s heartfelt drama about a handful of people whose lives intersect amid the bustling anonymity of New York City. Centering on the plight of a woman who flees an abusive marriage with her two young sons, the narrative shows how circumstances — and life itself — can turn on a dime.
 
Clara (Zoe Kazan) knows she has to get her boys away from their father, Richard (Esben Smed), so she sneaks them out early one morning and takes them to Manhattan on “vacation.” But it quickly becomes apparent to them (as well as to viewers) that Clara doesn’t really have a plan — or any resources to fall back on. Richard’s father is no help, and she’s afraid to contact the authorities, since Richard is a cop. Thankfully, she eventually crosses paths with Alice (Andrea Riseborough), an ER nurse/church volunteer who works with those in need, and Marc (Tahar Rahim), a prickly restaurant owner who doesn’t want to get close to anyone but is swayed by Clara’s vulnerability and precarious situation.
 
Rounding out the ensemble of characters are Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones), who means well but seems cursed by bad luck and a lack of attention to detail; John Peter (Jay Baruchel), Marc’s lawyer and the closest thing he has to a friend; and Timofey (Bill Nighy), who works with Marc at his restaurant and knows how to be discreet. As Clara and her boys brush through all of their lives, they find themselves changing, however subtly — they’re more honest with themselves and with each other, they’re open to new connections, and they recognize the value of reaching out to people who need help.

Scherfig, who also wrote the film’s compelling script, elicits strong and affecting performances from her actors. Kazan is heartbreaking as a loving mother who will do anything to save her kids but has no idea where to turn for assistance, and Riseborough is simultaneously tough and tender as Alice, who’s seen everything in the ER but still isn’t immune to tragedy and pain. With its poignant story, The Kindness of Strangers serves as a strong argument for the importance of really seeing those around us and opening our hearts to them. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Leslie Combemale Writer/director Lone Scherfig and a great cast fronted by Zoe Kazan speak to the importance of empathy and forgiveness at the core of new indie The Kindness of Strangers, in moving and powerful ways. The film’s likely to cause tiny fissures in the hearts of those who watch it, but the depth of the character arcs make those little breaks worth it. The trajectories of a battered wife (Kazan) on the run with her kids, a nurse (Andrea Riseborough)losing her faith in humanity, a lost soul (Caleb Landry Jones), an ex-con (Tahar Rahim) and his world-weary lawyer friend (Jay Baruchel), and others, all collide during a particularly harsh New York City winter. As an ensemble, you can’t do better than that list of performers, unless you add Bill Nighy as a compassionate but nonplussed restaurateur, a role with which he, as expected, brings the whole story together. These characters stumble through their personal tragedies towards each other, and the resulting interactions are healing to both those onscreen, and those watching the film.

Nell Minow: Zoe Kazan gives a luminous performance in a story about the transformative impact of kindness and forgiveness, both on those who receive and those who give. Lone Scherfig’s characters are often flawed, sometimes mistaken, but always human and worth rooting for.

Jennifer Merin In The Kindness of Strangers, writer//director Lone Scherfig’s weaves a rambling narrative comprised of the strands of the disparate lives of several desperate and disconnected characters who randomly intersect as they struggle for survival and meaning in the unsympathetic environment that is Manhattan. Zoe Kazan plays the mother who has fled from Buffalo with her two young sons to escape the violent abuse of her police officer husband. As a character with nothing but need, she becomes the pivotal person in the plot, eliciting and depending upon the resources and essential kindness of the other characters — a nurse, lawyer and restaurateur, among others. Set in a gritty assemblage of NYC locations, evolving at a slow and deliberate pace and progressing with a story line of unlikely coincidental events, the film presents as a hope-filled fantasy with a dash of social commentary about how the fundamental human characteristic of kindness can quell the prevailing sense of loneliness and isolation that dominates our modern day urban lifestyle. The Kindness of Strangers isn’t an easy to watch film with a neat and tidy plot that you can easily forget. Instead, the implausible aspects of the story call for contemplation about the need for kindness in our lives.

Sandie Angulo Chen: The Kindness of Strangers is one of those films where an ensemble of outstanding international actors play characters who are strangers but whose lives eventually intersect in overlapping ways. But unlike a feel-good holiday- or faith-based themed film, this one centers around loneliness, pain, and forgiveness. Zoe Kazan and Andrea Riseborough – both brilliant actors – give standout performances as Clara, a young wife and mother who’s the survivor of domestic abuse (at the hands of a police officer husband, just to make her escape more complicated), and Alice, a trauma nurse by day and group-therapy facilitator by night who manages to connect all the characters. Tahar Rahim, Bill Nighy, Jay Baruchel also co-star in supporting roles. While the movie’s set throughout New York City, there’s a nearly magical Russian restaurant where all the characters congregate (to eat, steal food, hang out, even squat). This isn’t my favorite Lone Scherfig drama (that remains An Education), but she still knows how to draw out nuanced performances.

Cate Marquis Audiences who like neat, tidy narratives might not like this film but its big-hearted sympathy for people on the margins of society and hope-filled belief in the power of kindness will win others over to The Kindness of Strangers. Read full review.

Liz Whittemore While the pacing of The Kindness of Strangers is a bit of a slow burn, especially considering the film’s length, performances are completely heartfelt. The Kindness of Strangers boasts a massively talented cast of both indie and mainstream film stars. The script is completely successful in echoing the film’s title. Filled with characters from all walks of life, The Kindness of Strangers highlights the good qualities so many people possess. We are inundated with so much negativity at the moment, to see the brightness of the human spirit emerge from the dark is refreshing.

Sheila Roberts Written and directed by Lone Scherfig, the New York City drama features an impressive ensemble cast that includes Zoe Kazan, Andrea Riseborough, Bill Nighy, Caleb Landry Jones, Jay Baruchel and Tahar Rahim. Scherfig attempts to write an authentic story that will resonate with audiences, including those that may have never experienced such bleak situations in their own lives. Read full review.

Susan Wloszczyna: The Kindness of Strangers‘ capable cast of actors is topped by Zoe Kazan as Clara, a young mother who runs away from Buffalo to New York City to save her sons from their father, an abusive cop who gets off on violence. With little means to support herself and no safe haven that she can afford for her kids save for libraries, she does what the title says – she reaches out to average citizens who just happen to be do-gooders. Read full review.

Loren King Director Lone Scherfig has made some memorable movies: Italian For Beginners (2000); An Education (2009); and Their Finest (2016). I even liked the disturbing but imminently watchable The Riot Club (2014). Her latest The Kindness of Strangers is an ensemble drama with solid performances from Zoe Kazan as a young mother fleeing an abusive marriage and Andrea Riseborough as an overworked nurse whose goodness is stretched thin. But the film is relentlessly downbeat as we follow these and other troubled characters as they navigate New York City with some pat and predictable outcomes. The movie is well intended and has some engaging moments thanks to Kazan, Riseborough and the reliable Bill Nighy (who co-starred in Their Finest) as an aging restaurateur. But the glum, disparate stories never gel into a satisfying whole. Scherfig is entitled to a misfire when she’s a filmmaker of skill and sensitivity; I’m looking forward to what she does next.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: The Kindness of Strangers

Directors: Lone Scherfig

Release Date: February 14, 2020

Running Time: 112 minutes

Language: English

Screenwriter: Lone Scherfig

Distribution Company: Vertical Entertainment

Trailer

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).