“Meadowland” opens with the five year old son of Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson) vanishing from a gas station. Then, director Reed Morano cuts to a year later, long after what must have been the initial shock and fury has worn down, and mother and father are left down a few grams of their souls. Sarah acts out the usual ways, with drinking and drugs and wanton what-have-you, but that is nowhere near as interesting as the way Wilde simply strips most affectations out of her performance. With discernible bags under her eyes and pale white skin she often looks like a ghost, like when she wanders through a Times Square crowd with the camera to her back, like she’s faceless, passing through a life she already left or no longer has need for.
There are elements of “Meadowland” that reminded me of Stewart O’Nan’s 2008 novel “Songs for the Missing”, which is about a family coping with their child gone missing. Morano’s view of the world here is much darker than O’Nan’s, but the storytelling style is similar, in the way that the investigation into the disappearance takes a backseat to the emotional grappling, and how psychological acuity is wrung not from big grandstanding moments but smaller ones where little seems to be happening. Granted, O’Nan does a sharper job of allowing everyday chit-chat to communicate something larger whereas “Meadowland’s” script, by Chris Rossi, too often over-literalizes, like an early moment when Sarah, a schoolteacher, has her class interpret poetry. “You don’t know when it’s going to be light again. It might just keep getting darker,” one of her students says.
Still, both the film and book have characters that are stuck in place, unable to move forward, as if they’ve reached a fork in the road that merely yields dead ends in both directions. Sarah keeps proclaiming that she knows her son’s alive, but “Meadowland” isn’t so naïve to believe that just because you think good things will happen they will. Eventually Phil calls her out and Sarah never makes a counter-argument; she knows he’s right.
“Meadowland”, however, as the title implies, is not just about Sarah, or Phil, but a whole host of people, a community, struggling with the bad turns of their own lives. Phil’s troubled brother Tim (Giovanni Ribisi) shows up with no place to go as just about the worst possible time. Phil attends a support group and meets another father, Pete (John Leguizamo), whose child was kidnapped and killed, and who expresses fantasies about hurting the murderer. Phil is as written as a cop, which you fear will be brought back around in some way convenient to the plot, and it does, with Phil getting the murderer’s address for Pete. But Pete, and Morano, shut it right down. This film isn’t about confrontation because it grasps the uselessness of confrontation when what’s done is done.
Sarah, meanwhile, founds herself emotionally ensnared by a student, Adam (Ty Simpkins), with a foster mother (Elisabeth Moss, a powerful cameo) who seems to have turned her back on him. This is one of the moments when Rossi pushes too hard at drawing a parallel, allowing Sarah’s mothering instincts to move from her own son to Adam, which affords an overly dramatic climax that borrows heavily from “Return” which itself borrowed heavily from “Sherrybaby.” Even so, “Meadowland” admirably doesn’t push to resolve its many loose ends, and ultimately the film is like a long sentence ending on an ellipsis rather than a period.
The film’s finest moment occurs midway through when Sarah and Tim are sitting on a roof, smoking pot, losing themselves in anything that isn’t what they feel every other hour of the day. The sky above them is brilliantly illuminated with ribbons of orange dancing in the blue, and Moran is sure to include the sky in the frame as much as the two characters, almost like they are merging, like Sarah and Tim want nothing more than simply to slip the surly bonds of earth.