It’s rarely a good sign when a film sits unreleased for nearly two years, only to be unceremoniously dumped in a handful of theaters and on video-on-demand platforms. Such is the case with Strange But True, Rowan Athale’s preposterous noir thriller adapted from John Searles’ 2004 novel of the same name. The mystery of the film’s failure is more perplexing than the yarn it attempts to tell: The supporting cast is stacked, composed of familiar faces like Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Blythe Danner, and Brian Cox. Add to this the fact that the two leads, Nick Robinson and Margaret Qualley, have garnered enough exposure with contemporary audiences, and the movie should have significant draw. The production values are flavorlessly digital. All these factors should have made Strange But True ripe for a streaming service like Netflix to snap up and rebrand as an exclusive — it has the makings of a moderate success story, but that’s not going to be the case here. Something about it just feels peculiar, and not in the way the filmmaker intended, either.
After opening with a superfluous flash-forward to the third act’s climax, Strange But True goes back two days prior to try and contextualize this introductory scene. Philip (Robinson) lays on the couch with a broken leg, while his mom Charlene (Ryan) brings him some soup. He’s quick to point out that the soup is his brother Ronnie’s (Connor Jessup) favorite, not his — right off the bat, this dialogue feels unconvincing. As if on cue, his brother’s former girlfriend Melissa (Qualley) shows up at the front door. She has some shocking news that she delivers via cassette tape: She’s pregnant with Ronnie’s baby, even though he’s been dead for five years. This outrageous (and mystifying) revelation sends both Charlene and Philip into separate investigative spirals. She seems convinced that Melissa did something to her son’s body postmortem, while he believes it’s more than likely someone else is the father. Neither plotline is all that engrossing, but don’t worry — they change directions soon enough.
Unlike Philip and Charlene, Melissa isn’t all that concerned with the specifics of the conception — a psychic told her the baby is Ronnie’s, so she accepts it as truth. Instead of trying to work out the details, Melissa instead chooses to spend her days preparing for the baby and helping out at a local hardware store under the supervision of an older couple named Bill and Gail (Cox and Danner). It’s a jarring contrast: Charlene becoming consumed with paranoia, Melissa calmly painting a nursery. Ronnie snoops into Melissa’s personal life around town, while the mom-to-be dutifully keeps an eye on Bill’s store. (Surely these threads are a lot more interesting on the page, seeing as the novel was quite well received, but it’s awfully tedious onscreen.) As with any B-movie mystery, though, all this second-act investigation eventually starts gaining some traction and the story escalates to outlandish new heights in a flash, once again taking the story in yet another direction.
Both Robinson and Qualley have proven their worth as actors over the past year or two — Robinson’s performance in Love, Simon (2018) was praised for paving new ground for LGBTQ+ representation in studio rom-coms, and Qualley’s work in this year’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood helped earn Quentin Tarantino some of the best box-office numbers of his career. The two will undoubtedly continue to score big roles with high-profile directors, just as they’ve done for the past couple of years. However, Strange But True was filmed before its stars’ breakout success — completed back in 2017, the film sat unreleased until CBS Films finally figured out what to do with it this summer. As a result, Robinson and Qualley feel especially weak as the film’s co-leads. The pair have matured and developed as actors, and this blast from the past makes their missteps seem more surprising than it would have been back in 2017. The entire film rides on their awkward delivery of its harebrained dialogue, resulting in a work that feels more like a movie-within-a-movie than a legitimate feature in its own right.
Even if one disregards the shoddy acting from the film’s leads, Strange But True is not quite the neo-noir that it presents itself to be. A properly bleak, pulpy noir has a stoic lead with integrity, a murderous and sinister villain, and a femme fatale. Its style is stark with mise-en-scène that leaves a lasting impression, and its dialogue is sharp and witty with no room for nonsense. None of this is present in Strange But True. Comparing Robinson and Qualley to the great actors and actresses of film noir is pointless purely because of their inexperience as performers — it goes without saying that this duo does not evoke Bogie and Bacall. There’s nothing difficult or desolate about the plot, either. Screenwriter Eric Garcia walks the viewer through each twist and turn without the slightest hint of nuance or respect for filmgoers’ intelligence. As for style? There is none. The digital cinematography feels more bland than bold. It hardly matters, though: With a half-hour left, the film all but ditches any remnant of ambition for clichéd thriller elements. It seems even Garcia knew that his feature wasn’t working as a more stylish genre piece.
Strange But True’s biggest mystery is this: What went wrong here? Plot holes, shaky performances, and inexplicable twists abound, but it somehow remains hazy where exactly Athale’s sophomore feature goes off the rails. Once the previously teased climax comes back into play, the only sense of satisfaction comes from the realization that the feature must be nearing its end. Even so, the film drags on for another 10 or 15 minutes, now in full-on thriller mode. As a final insult, characters that once seemed amiable and level-headed have been completely transformed into their opposites with slim to little rationale. Perhaps these plot turns worked when Strange But True was a novel, but there seems to be too much that’s been lost in translation from page to screen for the whole thing to function properly. Ultimately, Athale’s film is indeed strange but also tiresome.
Strange But True is now available to rent from major online platforms.