What would make a normal young girl from a privileged home in Toronto drop out of college to live on the streets without telling anyone why? That’s the central conundrum surrounding this captivating moodpiece from Alan Gilsenan which begins – appropriately – with a song from Canada’s prime avatar of angst and alienation, Leonard Cohen.
For the next 80 minutes Gilsenan pans his camera around the neon-lit streets of Toronto where Norah (Hanah Gross) sits astride a cardboard sign with the word ‘goodness’ written on it in freezing temperatures. She inhabits the pavement outside a department store, gazing blankly ahead of her as she resists all of her family’s attempts to persuade her to come home or even engage her in conversation. All they get from her is the merest flicker of a smile – if they’re lucky.
What trauma has caused this rejection of everything she’s known up to now? When it’s finally revealed in the penultimate scene, all the pieces of the jigsaw coalesce. Until that moment this is an enigmatic foray into a world torn asunder by Nora’s uncharacteristic – some would say self-indulgent – transmogrification.
That great character actress Catherine Keener plays her mother Reta. Reta is a writer who documents her pain in a poignant voiceover as she searches for that ‘moment of grace’ that will explain her daughter’s inscrutable behaviour.
This is a must-see film. The storyline is thin – and the significance of the ‘goodness’ sign is never explained – but under Gilsenan’s dreamy direction it morphs into a kind of symphonic minuet, a tender exposition of the manner in which, in ‘a world of maybes’, a freakish transposition of events can change a life irrevocably.
Nobody puts a foot wrong in the cast. Great care is taken with every expression, every gesture, every line of dialogue. Ordinary life goes on around her as Norah lives her extraordinary. Meanwhile we await some kind of epiphany or catharsis.
When it comes, Gilsenan underplays it which I felt was a mistake. Joan now speaks for the first time in the film. I thought she should have done so emotionally, even hysterically, to give her performance the traction it needed to avoid it becoming too linear.
I also felt the film could have used a scene where all the family sat around a table discussing what should be done about her instead of their separate excursions into her life, documented piecemeal by Gilsenan.
But these are small caveats. Unless draws you hypnotically into its minimalistic web before the shocking finale. This may prove disturbing for younger viewers, which accounts for the 15A certificate. There’s also a sexual scene which draws a tear from Norah – ironically, one should mention, for it’s one of the few times she shows any emotion before her ‘recovery’, if such it can be called.
This is a classy undertaking from a country renowned for such unconventional odysseys into the convoluted map of the human heart.