Film

Toronto Film Festival: Director Katherine Dieckmann Is a Master of Place and Messy Humanity

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What’s constant in Katherine Dieckmann’s films – Motherhood (2009), Diggers (2006) and A Good Baby (2000) – is an attention to characters and place. Many of us in the world of film reside in the big coastal cities, but a good number come from somewhere else, smaller towns with subtle dialectical shifts and gossip that travels faster than the shoddy American-made cars on the potholed roads. It takes a skilled writer and director to evoke the pangs of homesickness for those places we might have lived — or never even been — but Katherine Dieckmann shows herself a master mapmaker to the nostalgic heart in this lyrical drama about a middle-aged woman finally coming to terms with her son’s suicide through a shotgun Louisiana road trip: Strange Weather.

It hasn’t rained for weeks, and Darcy Baylor (Holly Hunter) is whisper-bickering with her elderly neighbor at midnight. No one in the overgrown Louisiana parish can sleep in the heat, and they’re all trying to water their parched gardens with a rationed supply. The lack of rain and the dense air, covering every character with a glistening sheen of sweat, becomes an ongoing theme; it feels like any moment the sky could break loose and wreak havoc, but this story is all about the buildup.

When Darcy runs into one of her deceased son Walker’s old college buddies, it’s the first of a long day’s many coincidences that all lead back to her boy’s memory, culminating in the revelation that one of his frenemies stole his business-school plan for a family hot dog stand and got rich. Darcy takes this as a sign, and it catalyzes her spur-of-the-moment decision to track down that cheating classmate and… well, she doesn’t quite know what she’ll do, but she’s certainly bringing Walker’s gun. Hunter sells her character’s impetuousness with an effervescent performance. She’s always zero to a hundred and back again, and somehow never cloying or annoying.

Outside, heat lightning electrifies the sky. And as Darcy takes off with her best friend/neighbor Byrd (Carrie Coon) — collecting informal interviews with all the friends who witnessed the final hours before Darcy’s son put a gun to his head — the narrative turns toward something like a slow-burning detective story.

Hunter seems born to play this part, a sympathetic character even when she’s selfishly pursuing her own emotional goals to the detriment of other people. Her entire body, though petite, seems made of muscle, underscoring her character’s balance of strength and vulnerability, but all of this is to say she is damned likable, a pistol, the friend you want to buy a shot — even if she owes you a hundred dollars — just to listen to her talk.

Scenes in Darcy’s rustic country home are low-lit and always set in the nighttime — Dieckmann gets that life in a hot climate is lived mostly when the sun goes down. At one point, Darcy calls Byrd over for a late-night salad, the kind of tiny, truthful detail about what someone in that heat would whip up that makes this script sing. Later, when Darcy and Byrd embark on their trip, we see the melting-off duct tape holding Darcy’s steering wheel on. The same for Darcy’s nice work clothes, which she keeps dry and hung up on the drive to the university where she’s an admin assistant on the verge of getting canned. She’s revealed as through-and-through working class with just these few realistic details, and I can’t help thinking of how my mother wore tennis shoes and carried her pumps in a plastic Payless Shoes bag to work every morning — I’m fighting the urge to call Dieckmann’s depiction of regular people “authentic.”

With a convincing lazy drawl and natural charm, actress Carrie Coon is the perfect grounding wire for Hunter’s lightning rod. And actor Kim Coates takes a rare turn as a good guy in this picture, playing Clayton, Darcy’s old flame who still holds out hope that she’s gonna move on from Walker’s death and come back to him. At the heart of this story, however, is good people enduring a long, dry period, before realizing it’s up to them to make it rain. But the driving hand of Strange Weather that keeps the old truck on the road, out of sentimental ditches, is Dieckmann, with pinpoint attention on humanity and the messy, mundane bits of life.

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