In yet another entry in the post-"Sweet Hereafter" grief genre, a widow (Vinessa Shaw) living alone in Vermont pores over her late husband's clothes, listens to his answering machine messages and hallucinates he is beside her in bed. "Bereft" captures the strangeness underneath the serene surface of Shaw's face and the destructiveness lurking behind New England's splendid scenery.

In yet another entry in the post-”Sweet Hereafter” grief genre, a widow (Vinessa Shaw) living alone in Vermont pores over her late husband’s clothes, listens to his answering machine messages and hallucinates he is beside her in bed. “Bereft” captures the strangeness underneath the serene surface of Shaw’s face and the destructiveness lurking behind New England’s splendid scenery, but pic tries too hard to sustain credibility and avoid melodrama to strike much emotional resonance. Showtime plans to release film theatrically before cable broadcast, but may find overly restrained meller a hard sell.

Venturing into Atom Egoyan territory, tyro screenwriter Peter Ferland spies obsessive mourning rituals carried out at night in secret. Molly (Shaw), an amateur photographer, dresses in her white satin wedding gown and poses beside her phantom husband, desperately hoping to capture on film the ghostly image of her beloved that only she can see.

Outwardly, to family and friends, she appears simply to be quietly grieving, the sole visible sign of strangeness being her refusal to travel by car (her husband was run over while jogging), allowing all the more time for the viewer to appreciate the spectacular Vermont countryside. She works at a photo shop, taking home and appropriating the candid moments of other people’s lives (shades of “One Hour Photo”) while circumventing the matchmaking efforts of her boss (Amy Van Nostrand), whose tactless remarks in the guise of folksy customer chitchat provide a sardonic running-joke commentary on small town friendliness.

On her walks, Molly becomes intrigued by the antisocial behavior of an angry, country-simple white-trash neighbor (the ever-brilliant Tim Blake Nelson) sporting a large strawberry birthmark on his face like some kind of backwoods stigmata. He lives with his macho uncle (an uncharacteristically hairy and rowdy Tim Daly), and the two successfully overturn Molly’s no-riding rule to chauffeur her in their pickup. At first repelled by their uncouth energy, she soon finds herself acting out her repressed anger, taking potshots at roosters and breaking into people’s houses to secretly violate their domestic security.

At the same time, her attempts to maintain the illusion of normalcy lead to ever more convoluted pretenses. When her mother, dropping by unannounced, finds Molly’s husband’s belongings lying around, Molly cooks up an instant boyfriend, hastily accepting a blind date whom she drags to her parents’ house.

Both comic scenes and unsettling ones are presented in an equally straightforward manner, with little inflection in thesping or lensing, as if the frosh helming team of actor Daly and d.p. Chris Mathis (both veterans of TV’s 2000 “Fugitive” series) were afraid to put the slightest dent in the trance-like spell they are attempting to weave.

Script leaves plenty of room for complex changes of tone, butShaw’s face remains a beautiful cipher: One can readily believe she is repressing emotion, but she fails to take the viewer along for the ride.

Mathis’ lensing does ample justice to picturesque vistas, but tends to naturalize and domesticate everything in its purview, while Mark Snow’s melodic score doesn’t do much to bring out story’s dark undertones.

Bereft

Production

A Showtime Independent Films/Red House Entertainment production. Produced by Steve Burleigh, Tim Daly, David Peters. Directed by Tim Daly, Clark Mathis. Screenplay, Peter Ferland.

Crew

Camera (color, 24p), Mathis; editors, Karen Castendeda, Mathis; music, Mark Snow; production designer, Stephanie Carroll; casting, Pat McCorkle. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Showcase), May 9, 2004. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Vinessa Shaw, Tim Blake Nelson, Tim Daly, Marsha Mason, Michael C. Hall, Ed Hermann, Amy Van Nostrand.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more